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Old World forage grass making a comeback in the Midwest

The new variety proved more resilient to drought, freezing temperatures and repeated grazing.

By Brooks Hays
Old World forage grass making a comeback in the Midwest
A meadow of Hidden Valley meadow fescue. Photo by USDA/ARS

MADISON, Wis., Aug. 28 (UPI) -- A long ignored grass species is poised for a comeback. Federal researchers are urging cattle farmers in the Upper Midwest to reintroduce a fescue variety forgotten by time.

The grass, a type of meadow fescue, was first introduced from Europe in 19th century. It was popular with beef and dairy farmers for decades, but in the 1950s, meadow fescues were ditched in favor of newer, taller varieties with higher yields.

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Meadow fescues never went away entirely, however. Interest in similar grasses has grown as more farmers and ranchers take interest in more eco-friendly "managed grazing" practices -- doing more with less.

One variety survived almost on accident. Cows on a farm in Wisconsin happened upon a surviving patch and took to it fondly. As they thrived on it, they spread its seed through their manure, and the grass gained new ground.

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ARS researchers were alerted to its presence -- since named Hidden Valley, for the farm it was discovered on -- and began studying the forage grass.

Though Hidden Valley grass produced a lower yield than tall fescue and orchard grass, it has a 9 percent "higher rate of neutral detergent fiber digestibility." The cows can eat more of it and more easily pack on the pounds.

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Researchers tested other similar Old World meadow fescue varieties, but Hidden Valley stood out. It proved more resilient to drought, freezing temperatures and repeated grazing.

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"What was originally found on this farm is really remarkable," Michael Casler, an ARS plant geneticist who works at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, said in a press release.

Testing suggests it is particularly well suited to the Upper Midwest's "Driftless Region," an area that includes portions of Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. It also takes especially well to former cropland that's been allowed to return to pasture.

Since announcing the new variety in the Journal of Plant Registrations, last summer, ARS has made the seed available for purchase in the National Plant Germplasm System.

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