Penn State
ForagesPeopleTopicsResourcesSelection ToolContact Info

Topics : Species and Forage Variety Trials : Species Fact Sheets : Tall Fescue

Species: Tall Fescue

Additional tall fescue information via the Forage Information System (FIS)

Characteristics & Adaptation of Tall Fescue

Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea Schreb.) is a deep-rooted, long-lived, sod-forming grass that spreads by short underground stems called rhizomes. In Pennsylvania it has primarily been used for conservation purposes but is well suited as hay, silage, or pasture for beef cattle and sheep. It is well adapted to the soil and weather conditions of Pennsylvania. It is especially adapted to acid, wet soils of shale origin and will produce more forage on soils with pH less than 5.5 than other cool-season grasses (Table 1). Tall fescue is drought resistant and will maintain itself under rather limited fertility conditions. Tall fescue is also ideal for waterways, ditch and pond banks, and farm lots and lanes. It is the best grass in areas of heavy livestock and machinery traffic.

Animals will readily graze tall fescue during April, May and early June and again in the fall, but show reluctance to graze it during the summer months of July and August. Some of this reduced summer palatability and traditionally low-quality forage, which resulted in poor animal performance, is associated with the presence of a fungus in the plant (endophytic). The fungus grows between the plant cells and overwinters in the base of the plant. The fungus produces alkaloids which are toxic to animals. These alkaloids are thought to cause the poor conception rates, low birth weights, and low daily gains of animals grazing fungus infected tall fescue. Low endophyte varieties are now available and are recommended for new seedings.

Tall fescue is the best adapted cool-season grass for stockpiling (accumulating growth) for use in the fall and winter. In addition, tall fescue generally has greater quality in the fall because of greater leaf retention than other cool-season grasses in the fall. Thus it can provide much of the spring, fall and winter feed for a beef cow herd.

Adapted Tall Fescue Varieties

Numerous varieties are adapted for use in Pennsylvania. However, the endophyte free varieties have improved quality compared to those infected with the endophyte fungus. Endophyte infected varieties are well-suited for use on reclaimed strip mines and other conservation uses where the soil conditions are unusually adverse for plant growth.

Because of differences in growth habits, palatability and time of the year when they should be used, other grasses should not be included with tall fescue at seeding time. However, legumes can be used in the seeding mixture with tall fescue, although the stand may eventually be used as a pure tall fescue stand for winter stockpiling. The legumes will persist for several years, improve the forage quality and serve as a source of nitrogen for the tall fescue. Regardless of the seeding mixture, it is recommended that low endophyte seed be used if the tall fescue is to be used for animal feed.