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We hear several questions each spring from producers about how best to fix “high-traffic” areas in pastures that have been severely damaged between late fall and early spring. High traffic areas such as feeding areas, sacrifice lots, alleyways, gateways and waterers often are bare and muddy this time of year. To slow and reduce soil erosion, compaction, forage damage and weed problems, and as a benefit to animal health, these areas need to be renovated promptly.
Both annual (Italian) and perennial ryegrass are good options when renovating these areas, but annual ryegrass usually dies during hot and dry summers. These cool-season forages work well because they establish easier and more quickly than other common forage species. They frequently are used as a cover crop and can be useful when establishing new pastures or when reseeding old stands with more permanent forages. The dense, shallow root system not only reduces erosion but improves soil aggregate stability, reduces current compaction by breaking up dense soils, and helps prevent future compaction. Vigorous growth helps these forages out-compete unwanted late summer and winter annuals.
Annual ryegrass is more vigorous than perennial ryegrass, but provides only short-term cover. It will die during the summer whether it is planted in the spring or the fall of the previous year. The advantage of late summer or fall planting is high-quality late fall and early spring grazing. Perennial ryegrass is more susceptible to summer slump than other cool-season grasses, but with proper management (fertilization and rotational grazing) usually survives for two to three years in Kentucky pastures. Some producers mix the two to obtain quick cover from the annual ryegrass and longer term survival from perennial ryegrass.
Seeding ryegrass for quick coverage not only reduces erosion potential but provides a valuable forage. These grasses often are used for pasture, hay or silage. If harvested at a vegetative state, ryegrass is high in digestibility. Compared to other cool-season grasses, this species also is high in protein and can be a useful feed for livestock with high nutritional needs such as lactating and growing animals.
Management of ryegrass is similar to that of other cool-season grasses. Drilling seed into a firm seedbed is recommended for best seedling establishment. Ryegrass can be seeded in late summer/fall or early spring. It is possible to frost seed ryegrass by scattering seed on the soil surface in February but it is suggested seed be drilled into the soil for maximum success. Fertilizer and lime should be applied according to soil test results. Doing split applications of nitrogen (40-60 pounds per acre) can be beneficial. It is important to use high-quality seed of a variety suited for the intended use. Using a winter-hardy variety is suggested as this species is not highly tolerant of extremely cold temperatures. It is important to reduce competition from weeds and other unwanted species. If possible, keep livestock or heavy traffic off newly seeded areas to allow for seedling establishment. Rotationally graze for maximum efficiency. Do not overgraze and allow for an adequate rest and regrowth period.
Doug Shepherd is a Hardin County Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources.