Experimental perennial ryegrass

Nancy Jo Ehlke, University of Minnesota professor and head of the University of Minnesota Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, is testing this perennial ryegrass experimental variety for potential release. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – A third-year stand of lush perennial ryegrass waved in the breeze, in mid-May, at the North Central Research and Outreach Center.

It was an unusual sight given the cold winter that northern Minnesota just had. The nearby Kentucky bluegrass and quackgrass paddocks didn’t look as vigorous as the experimental ryegrass line.

It gives researchers hope that they’ve found a good overwintering grass that can provide forage for horses, cattle and sheep.

“I would think with the winter hardiness that material contains, it would do well across the Upper Midwest,” said Nancy Jo Ehlke, professor and head of the University of Minnesota Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics.

She started a forage perennial ryegrass breeding program about 15 years ago, and this experimental variety is now in performance testing for potential release.

Since the late 1980s, Ehlke has worked with grass and legume seed producers in the Roseau and Lake of the Woods area.

“We’ve done a lot of work on winter hardiness and ryegrass initially as a turf, because the value of the seed market is much greater as a turf than it is as a forage,” she said. “Out of that program, we were seeing plants that looked more like forage types, so we ended up doing a forage breeding program as well with our winter hardy material.”

Winter hardiness is a difficult trait to work with and test because every winter is different. In cold open winters, there can be a lot of winterkill. In warm winters, there isn’t enough winterkill. Neither warm nor very cold winters do much for moving winter hardy variety testing forward.

University of Minnesota researchers have been working on some artificial screening methods that involve controlled freezing. These have shown some merit in terms of assessing winter hardiness in ryegrass germplasm.

Ehlke’s work has been in collaboration with Eric Watkins, University of Minnesota professor and turfgrass breeder.

Grad students, as well as Craig Sheaffer, University of Minnesota professor in forage management, and Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota professor in equine research and Extension program leader, are also involved in perennial ryegrass research.

Ehlke thinks this experimental perennial ryegrass would work best when planted in a seed mix.

The seed could be planted as early as late July and as late as the first week of September. Planting at the end of July or even August would help graziers plant after early emerging weeds are removed while getting the ryegrass established for winter.

“Ryegrass is a pretty rapid germinator and it’s a pretty vigorous seedling,” she said. If planted in a mixture, the grazier could expect at least two years of grazing and possibly a third year if the paddock has good snow cover.

After a little more testing this summer, Ehlke hopes to release the experimental variety to a Minnesota seed company. She expects that Certified seed could be produced for farmers by 2022-2023.

“Forage quality doesn’t seem to be much of an issue with ryegrass – like it is with some of the other species – so we haven’t spent a lot of time on that,” Ehlke said. “Our main focus is improving winter hardiness and maintaining a high level of winter hardiness and coupling that with higher forage yields.”

She added that scientists are also working on developing forage cultivars with crowns that spread more than average. A familiar grass, Kentucky bluegrass, spreads by rhizomes and tillers; but ryegrass doesn’t do that.

Ehlke would like to see the crown of individual ryegrass forage plants develop to two or three times the size of a regular ryegrass plant.

“We have that spreading trait that we have been introducing into our forage types hoping that will help with trafficking and things like that with cattle,” she concluded.