Tall fescue to rescue of dairying

By Mike Barrington

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Waikato pasture showing one of tall fescue's main advantages - its ability to stay green and productive during droughts.
Waikato pasture showing one of tall fescue's main advantages - its ability to stay green and productive during droughts.

Tall fescue is an option for use on Northland farms in dry conditions like the region's west coast is experiencing, says Steve Cranston, who investigated its use on seven Northland dairy farms during summer last year.

Mr Cranston, an AgFirst consultant in Hamilton, was a student at Lincoln University when he carried out his investigation and, with Lincoln lecturer Guy Trafford, produced a report on his findings.

Drought-tolerant pastures will be increasingly important in Northland dairying, with NIWA predicting a reduction of up to 5 per cent in its annual rainfall making droughts more frequent and intense, the report says.

Despite a survey finding four-out-of-five Northland farmers rated their experience with tall fescue good or very good, use of it as dairy pasture in Northland was low compared with more traditional perennial ryegrass.

Mr Cranston told the Rural Advocate there had been initial difficulties with managing tall fescue, but improved cultivars, endophytes and management techniques had increased its potential as a summer survival option for farmers.

Tall fescue has been shown to have superior summer and autumn production compared with perennial ryegrass, with a temperature ceiling which allowed it to continue growing at temperatures from which ryegrass would suffer heat stress, his report says.

Tall fescue has one of the deepest rooting systems of all perennial pasture species, extending as deep as 2m, and its upright growth form allows more space for clover to grow compared with perennial ryegrass, which can crowd out other species.

In addition to drought resistance, tall fescue has high pest tolerance and can handle cow pugging damage better than ryegrass. The surveyed farmers' perception was that DairyNZ had a strong focus on ryegrass and little attention was being given to the potential of tall fescue to increase pasture persistence even though it appeared more suited to Northland conditions, the report says.

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