This past growing season demonstrated that forage grasses are not created equal. Following one of the coldest winters on record, there were large differences among forage grass species and varieties for winter injury and yield. 

We all remember the bitter cold days of last winter. Surprisingly enough, the temperatures at the 2-inch soil depth never fell below 25 F all winter across most of the state. We had enough snow cover during the coldest days to moderate soil temperatures, but the cold air temperatures still had very damaging effects on some grass species and varieties.

The table below illustrates the differences we observed in 2014 in side-by-side forage grass trials at the Western Research Station of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center near South Charleston, Ohio. We tested 4-6 varieties of each species. 

There was a strong relationship between winter injury score and total forage dry matter yield in 2014. Across all species having some level of winter injury (all except tall fescue and timothy), for each one unit increase in winter injury score the total season yield declined by 1.2 tons per acre.

Yield and winter injury of forage grass species near South Charleston, OH during the 2014 growing season. Trials were seeded in May 2013.


Average dry matter yield

Yield range

Winter injury range*



5.9 – 6.8

1.0 – 1.5

Tall fescue


5.3 – 5.8

No injury



4.9 – 6.3

1.5 – 2.0



4.2 – 5.4

No injury

Meadow fescue


3.9 – 4.9

1.7 – 2.7

Italian & annual ryegrass


0.6 – 4.6

2.8 – 5.0

Perennial ryegrass


2.0 – 3.5

3.1 – 4.6

* Winter injury rated from 1 = no injury to 5 = severe injury and mostly dead.
Byron Seeds, LLC provided support for the trials reported in the above table.

Orchardgrass, tall fescue and timothy had little to no winter injury symptoms in early spring, and they yielded quite well. The festuloliums (fescue by ryegrass cross) also performed well and were much better than the perennial ryegrasses we had in the test. They have similar forage quality characteristics as perennial ryegrass, so they are a good alternative to perennial ryegrasses.

Meadow fescue is a cool-season grass native to northern and southern Europe that was introduced to the U.S. in the early 1800s. It has recently received renewed interest among forage producers and scientists. It is generally lower yielding than orchardgrass and tall fescue, but it is more palatable to animals and has higher fiber digestibility resulting in higher animal performance than orchardgrass and tall fescue. It appears to be a good alternative to perennial ryegrass because of its high quality combined with better winter hardiness and higher forage yields than perennial ryegrass.

The perennial ryegrasses suffered the most winter injury overall and took a very long time to recover last spring. We delayed the first cutting of perennial ryegrass until June 12, similar to the normal later time of first cutting for timothy. We have observed large differences in winter injury among perennial ryegrass varieties in the past.

The Italian ryegrasses planted in spring 2013 did surprisingly well in 2014. They recovered well after moderate winter injury and yielded over 4 tons of dry matter in this second year of the stand. There are large differences in winter hardiness among Italian/annual ryegrasses. This can be seen from the data in the trial planted in September 2013 that is reported in the Ohio Forage Performance Trials ( Of 32 varieties planted in September 2013 in that trial, only 4 survived reasonably well and could have produced forage this year.

These results emphasize the importance of carefully selecting varieties for forage production. Grass is not grass! Not all grass varieties and species are created equal. Not all survive harsh winters the same, not all yield as well in dry years, and not all have the same forage quality and animal performance potential. 

Always ask the dealer for performance data from regions similar to your own to ensure you will have a productive forage stand year after year.