A pasture improvement research program by Dr. Dariusz Malinowski has him looking at summer-dormant tall fescue grasses as an alternative to winter wheat pastures.

But these aren’t the typical tall fescue grasses grown in many parts of the nation, said Malinowski, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station forage agronomist in Vernon. They are from the Mediterranean Basin of southern Europe and northern Africa.

“Our climate is changing here,” he said. “It’s been getting warmer and drier since the mid-90s.”

This climate change has made wheat-grasses and wheat pasture a less-viable option than in the past, Malinowski said. In his search for a replacement option, summer-dormant cool-season perennial grasses that start turning green and grow with the first rains in September are showing the most promise.

The Mediterranean summer-dormant cool-season perennial grasses such as tall fescue, orchardgrass, ryegrass and hardinggrass grow under conditions of mild winters and hot, dry and long summers, he said.

At one time, the southern Great Plains had its peak rainfalls in May and September, but that precipitation pattern doesn’t exist now, Malinowski said.

“This year is one of the many examples,” he said. “Wheat is not growing because there has been no moisture. So we think these perennial summer-dormant grasses are a viable option.”

Malinowski said the plots he planted seven years ago at the beginning of the research are still thriving. One year the plots only received 15 inches of rain, which is similar to the rainfall where they originated.

Work by Malinowski and his forage program team, in a partnership with AgResearch Grasslands of New Zealand, has led to two cultivars of summer-dormant tall fescue being introduced to the U.S. market: Grasslands Flecha MaxQ (AgResearch Grasslands New Zealand/Pennington Seeds) and Prosper (Heritage Seeds Australia/Barenbrug USA).

A second part of the pasture improvement option is using annual legumes mixed with the summer-dormant tall fescue grasses. The legumes are used to access nitrogen in the air and may reduce the need for high rates of fertilizer.

Reducing nitrogen fertilization in grasslands is a challenge, Malinowski said. In traditional grass-legume mixtures, the perennial grasses and legumes compete for the limited moisture, and in this region the result is one or the other dying off.

In cooperation with Dr. Keith Widdup of AgResearch Grasslands and Dr. Twain Butler of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation at Ardmore, Okla., the Vernon forage team began screening annual legumes for compatibility with Flecha MaxQ in 2004.

“We have evaluated a range of species, including annual clovers, annual medics, peas and vetches,” Malinowski said. “Annual legumes have a similar pattern of winter-spring growth to that of Flecha MaxQ, and they die in early summer after they reseed. Thus, they will not compete with Flecha MaxQ for water during summer months.”

Preliminary results show the annual Medicago species of legumes, commonly known as annual medics, are the best companion species for Flecha MaxQ, he said. Seed increases from the best suited medics will result in new cultivars for release in the U.S. and other markets in the next few years.

With the new combination of summer-dormant, tall fescue grasses and annual medics, producers should be able to put cattle on pastures for grazing in October, depending on moisture, and keep them there until summer, Malinowski said.

“This is a very secure crop that won’t die out no matter how dry it gets here in the summer,” he said.

Malinowski said he believes the optimum area for use of this combination is between Dallas and Amarillo and east into Oklahoma.

“If you can graze wheat in the winter, these grasses will also work,” he said. “They are perfectly suited ... to California and other states where summer and winter conditions at least resemble the Mediterranean climate to restore devastated rangeland.”

The grasses must be grazed in February and March during their peak production, Malinowski said. When they start bloom in mid-April, the forage quality will go down, so it is important to use them before they bloom.

The forage quality is similar to wheat, so while cattle weight-gain is expected to be similar, he said they do not have any long-term data yet.

The seeds must be planted in a weed-free environment, as they are not strong initially, he said. Also, producers who do plant this combination will be tempted to graze it the first spring, but are advised against doing so to give the grass time to establish itself.