Reed canarygrass – love it or hate it

Michigan grazers and forage growers have mixed feelings about reed canarygrass, a forage grass species.

Reed canarygrass. Photo by Leslie J. Mehrhoff,
Reed canarygrass. Photo by Leslie J. Mehrhoff,

Reed canarygrass, Phalaris arundinacea, is a cool-season forage grass species used by Michigan farmers in certain situations. This grass does best in moist, cool climates. It prefers fertile, moist and swampy soils and is especially well-suited to areas along waterways that frequently overflow. Other forage grasses are better suited to both wet and dry mineral soils.

According to the 2013 Michigan Forage Variety Test Report, reed canarygrass is slow to establish, has a long stand life, is rated “good” on acidic soils and “excellent” on wet soils, has good drought, heat and cold tolerance, and is rated good for both pasture and hay production. It has a sod-forming root system with rhizomes and creates a very dense stand when established in a favorable location. It is most often found in areas that frequently flood, or along ditches, streams and riverbanks.

This plant is considered a native species by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, although they note that “most Midwestern colonies thought to be escapes of cultivated and European forms” and that “the invasive character of some Phalaris populations may be the result of agronomic breeding for vigorous growth and drought tolerance.”

Reed canarygrass definitely has the capability of crowding out other plant species in a wet, swampy environment. Native substitutes are being recommended for erosion control applications in some states.

Older varieties of reed canarygrass contain high levels of alkaloids, making them less palatable to livestock than other forage grasses. Newer varieties, including Palaton and Venture, have low alkaloid content and are preferred where a reed canarygrass seeding is planned. A seeding rate of 6-8 pounds per acre for a pure stand and 3-5 pounds per acre in a forage mixture is recommended. Fall seedings generally are more successful because weed pressure is reduced.

What do Michigan farmers have to say about reed canarygrass? An informal poll was conducted during the Michigan State University Ag Expo farm show on July 22-23, 2014. Kim Cassida, Michigan State University Extension state forage specialist, established a forage demonstration plot at Ag Expo including reed canarygrass, along with several other grass and legume forage species. MSU Extension staff asked several farmers about their experience and opinions about reed canarygrass as they visited the demonstration plots. Responses ranged from “love it” to “hate it.”

Positive responses included the way reed canarygrass provides good grazing and hay opportunities when other pastures are suffering from drought, and how it makes good use of wetter sites that would otherwise be unproductive. It is very persistent, but didn’t spread outside the wet areas. When managed properly, these farmers felt that reed canarygrass feed quality was acceptable.

Negative responses focused mostly on perceived low feed value. Reed canarygrass becomes very coarse if not harvested early enough. These farmers thought it was just too coarse and rank to make good feed.

In 1966, MSU released an Extension publication called “Reed Canarygrass for wet lowland areas of Michigan,” authored by Carter M. Harrison and John F. Davis. The publication listed the advantages of reed canarygrass as:

  • Makes good use of farm land which, in the past, has been considered wasteland because it was too wet.
  • Lengthens the pasture season for most farms by furnishing additional pasture good for five to six and a half months.
  • Produces green, succulent pasture feed after most upland pastures have dried up, or are unavailable.
  • Makes a good orchard mulching and packing material.
  • A good stand, well fertilized, will carry three heads of livestock per acre (as documented in a survey of 60 reed canarygrass fields in 1949, on average, three animal units per acre were pastured for 4.8 months – 52 percent of the fields were pastured longer than five months) or will produce a heavy yield of hay, grass silage or bedding.

Many of these points still apply today, but need to be tempered against changes in our understanding of environmental issues since 1966. Agricultural plant species with the potential to create undesirable environmental impacts should be considered carefully before including them in cropping or grazing systems. However, reed canarygrass, when properly established and managed in a farming situation still has a valuable niche on some farms.

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