Common Name: Tall Fescue
Scientific Name: Lolium arundinaceum (Schreb.) Darbysh.
Synonym: Festuca arundinacea Schreb. var. arundinacea Schreb. The hexaploid tall fescue has often been confused with the diploid and tetraploid meadow fescue (Festuca pratensis Huds.).
Origin: It was introduced from Europe to North and South America.
Time of introduction:
Mid- to late 1800's from Europe. Became widely used beginning in the 1940s.
Tall fescue is a long-lived perennial, cool-season, deep-rooted, bunchgrass. It is well adapted to humid, temperate areas. The branched inflorescence is a panicle up to 20 inches long (50 cm). Heads range from broad and loosely branched to rather narrow. Leaves of tall fescue are rolled in the bud (rolled vernation). Blades are prominently ridged on the upper surface and glossy on the lower surface. Leaves taper to the tip, and margins are rough and cutting to the touch. Tall fescue is a valuable grass, suitable for a wide range of climatic conditions, with many desirable qualities. Tall fescue is well adapted to moderately acid, wet soils and can be more productive than other grasses on soils of less than 5.5 pH. It is flood tolerant and drought resistant and maintains itself under limited fertility conditions. Thus, it performs well in waterways, ditches, pond banks, farm lots, and lanes. It also tolerates heavy livestock and machinery traffic. Like other cool-season grasses, its optimum temperature range is 68-77 F (20-25 C) and primary growth periods are spring and autumn. Tall fescue may contain an endophyte, which can cause ill effects on livestock performance. However, many varieties have now been introduced that contain a low level of the endophyte or 'novel endophytes' that protect the plant but cause no harm to livestock. Thus, it's possible to utilize tall fescue safely in forage/livestock systems.
Life cycle (annual/biennial/perennial):
Growth habit & Regrowth type:
Tall fescue is a bunchgrass and has an upright growth habit. It has short rhizomes but no stolons. It does not spread rapidly and will become 'clumpy' if not grazed closely. Regrowth type is culmless, following its initial flowering period.
Low; its small rhizomes create a weak sod. Can be a nuisance grass (wider and taller leaf blade contrasts with shorter, fine-leaved lawn grasses) in lawns due to viable seed already being present in the soil or surviving plants remaining when a farm field was converted to urban use or if mature mulch hay containing tall fescue seed was used to mulch seeded lawn.
Tall fescue is a long-lived perennial (10+ years). Varieties differ in their ability to produce a dense grass stand. Typically, after the first year, stands will be open. Second year stands will be thicker, and third year stands will be excellent, with planted rows no longer discernible. Later-developing varieties require more time to produce an outstanding, dense stand. Cutting and grazing management affect stand density. Improper timing or excessive duration of defoliation reduces stand counts and delays and regrowth. The presence of a species-specific fungal endophyte that is often present in this grass imparts insect and disease resistance, which improves persistence in most areas. Endophyte-free varieties have lowered persistence especially in the southern portion (Lower South) of the tall fescue adaption region. Novel endophyte varieties now being offered may confer similar persistence to that of endophyte infected varieties.
Image Gallery: The OSU Forage Information System contains an Image Gallery that includes Tall Fescue photographs and drawings useful in identification. The URL for the gallery is: http://forages.oregonstate.edu/main.php?PageID=241The direct URL for Tall Fescue is: http://forages.oregonstate.edu/main.php?PageID=178&SpecID=8
Inflorescence: The branched inflorescence is a panicle up to 20 inches long (50 cm). Typically, it is 4 to 14 inches (10 to 35 cm). Heads range from broad and loosely branched to rather narrow. Short branches bear several pedicellate spikelets. Tall fescue inflorescence image.
Spikelets: Spikelets are elliptical to oblong, 0.4 to 0.75 inch long (10 to 19 mm). Each spikelet has 3 to 10 florets. (See Figure.) However, only about half of the florets produce seed. Florets within the spikelet are interconnected by a central axis called the rachilla. Segments of the rachilla are found on each mature floret (seed). Tall fescue spikelet image.
Seed: Lemmas: awns 0.04 to 0.16 inch long; seeds are 0.25 to 0.4 inch long and 0.04 to 0.06 inch wide at midpoint. Tall fescue seed image.
Stem: Flowering shoots produce hollow stems comprised of distinct nodes and internodes collectively called the culm. Culms usually are erect, stout, smooth, and up to 6 feet (2 m) tall. The uppermost culm segment supporting the panicle-type inflorescence is the peduncle. The stem base commonly is reddish. Tall fescue stem image.
Leaf: Leaves of tall fescue are rolled in the bud (rolled vernation). Blades are 0.1 to 0.5 inch wide (3 to 12 mm) and 4 to 24 inches long (10 to 60 cm). They are prominently ridged on the upper surface and glossy on the lower surface. Leaves taper to the tip, and margins are rough and cutting to the touch.
Leaf sheaths are smooth, split (overlapping at the top), and reddish at the base. Tall fescue leaf image.
Collar: The collar is a narrow band of meristematic tissue accounting for increasing blade length. Once the blade has achieved its maximum length, cells in the collar cease dividing.
The collar region of tall fescue is distinctive. Auricles are blunt with fine hairs. The ligule is short and membranous, up to 0.08 inch (2 mm). Tall fescue collar image. Tall fescue collar diagram.
Root: Tall fescue produces a large number of coarse, tough roots. Tall fescue has no stolons. It generally has short rhizomes, although there is wide variation in rhizome characteristics and sod-forming ability. Tall fescue root image.
Physiology and growth period:
Cool season (C3) species producing most of its growth in spring (March - June) and autumn (September - December). It remains green longer in the fall and stockpiles better than other cool-season grasses. Growth temperatures are: minimum, 41 F (5 C); maximum, 90 F (32 C); optimum, 68-77 F (20-25 C).
Tall fescue tillers must be vernalized by cold temperatures to be induced to flower. Once vernalized, day lengths of >12 hours will stimulate flowering. Cross fertilization is wind-mediated and there is no requirement for insect pollination.
Tall fescue forage quality can be quite good in the vegetative stage. Beef cattle and horse pastures are often primarily tall fescue. Quality declines as maturity approaches, though beef cattle still readily consume tall fescue in advanced stages.
The endophytic fungus (Neotyphodium coenophialum) is the major antiquality concern in tall fescue. Many varieties introduced since the early 1980s contain a low level of the endophyte (less than 5 percent). In addition, old varieties now are marketed without the endophyte. Thus, it's possible to utilize tall fescue safely in forage/livestock systems by requesting low endophyte varieties (E-) or novel endophyte varieties and by interseeding endophyte infected tall fescue with legumes to dilute the endophyte toxin content of the grazing animal's diet. The aim of the novel endophyte introduction is to retain plant persistence conferred by the endophyte while eliminating the ill effects the unaltered endophyte has on livestock performance. The endophytic fungus is present in seed head tillers and in leaf sheaths. Toxins produced by the fungus, however, translocate from the leaf sheath into leaf blade. Thus, analysis for toxins is preferable to simple determination of presence or absence of the fungus.
Tall fescue prefers the cool temperatures of spring and fall, and grows poorly in mid-summer, which gives rise to the term "summer slump." It is winter hardy with good tolerance of drought and heat when infected with a fungal endophyte. Tall fescue is moderately tolerant to excessive moisture.
Tall fescue is well adapted to humid, temperate areas. In the United States, it is particularly well adapted to the area referred to as the transition zone. This area lies between the zones where cool- and warm-season grasses are cultivated successfully. It includes eastern Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma; Missouri and Arkansas; southern Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio; Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina; and Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Secondary use areas include north-central and northeastern states, areas south of the transition zone extending into northern Louisiana, irrigated intermountain regions, the coastal Northwest, and irrigated regions of the Pacific Northwest.
Max Temp (C)
Min Temp (C)
|Soil pH||Soil Drainage
|1. For the High values for January Minimum temperature and Annual Precipitation: "9999 is entered to indicate no limit to the high values for this tolerance category."|
2. For Soil Drainage categories, " Abbreviations are used for Soil Drainage categories: VPD (very poorly drained), PD (poorly drained), SPD (somewhat poorly drained), MWD (moderately well drained), WD (well drained), SED (somewhat excessively drained), ED (excessively drained)."
Climate: Tall fescue is best adapted to cool, moist climates. It is winter hardy with good tolerance of drought and heat when infected with a fungal endophyte. Spring and fall are the seasons of best growth. Maximum growth occurs between 72 and 77 F (22 to 25 C). A minimum precipitation range typically is 15 to 18 inches (375 to 450 mm), although in areas of high evapotranspiration, up to 36 inches (900 mm) may be required.
Soils: Tall fescue grows best on deep, moist soils that are fine to medium in texture and high in organic matter. It is suitable for use in soil drainage classes ranging from excessively drained to poorly drained. Tall fescue tolerates long periods of flooding (24 to 35 days) when temperatures are below 81 F (27 C). It grows on soils that vary from strongly acidic (pH 4.5) to strongly alkaline (pH 9.5). Best growth occurs when soil pH is maintained between 5.5 and 8.5. Tall fescue is tolerant of salinity levels between 0 and 16 mmhos/cm.
Grazing Management: Compared to most other cool-season grasses, tall fescue better tolerates continuous stocking. Greater forage production and higher animal gains, however, are obtained if management-intensive grazing techniques are used.
Palatability of tall fescue tends to be less than for other species at all phases of growth. Therefore, without carefully controlled intensive grazing to defoliate all plants equally, tall fescue tends to be left in a sward and eventually will dominate a pasture. "Topping," the process of clipping seedhead tillers remaining after grazing, can help reduce selective grazing and increase the leafiness of the pasture.
Turf Management: The new turf types will grow better when mowed at 2 inches (5 cm) but may need higher mowing during dry periods, in the summer, and under heavy shade. Use a rotary mower with sharp blades and mow often enough so no more than 1/3 of the leaf height is removed.
Pests: Diseases: Most diseases of tall fescue are caused by fungi. Crown rust may occur during warm, moist periods. It often starts in July and can persist well into September. Stem rust is widespread in Oregon and reduces seed yields.
Although rust is not toxic to livestock, it can affect palatability. For horses especially, the spores from rusts can cause significant respiratory problems. Maintaining high fertility and harvesting the accumulated forage reduce rust problems.
For turf and grass seed production, chemical control measures are available. Most, however, are not registered for forage use.
Pests: Insects: Foliage-feeding insects have not been a problem with tall fescue, probably because, historically, most pastures in the United States were infected with the endophyte. Numerous studies have shown that insect damage to tall fescue is reduced considerably when the endophyte is present.
Pests: Nematodes: Soil-borne nematodes can reduce yield and persistence, especially in the southern USA. These include Pratylenchus scribneri Steiner, Meloidogyne marylandi Jepson & Golden, Pratylenchus projectus Jenkins, and Tylenchorhynchus acutus Allen. They cause less damage if the endophyte is present.
Many dozens of cultivars are listed in the "Grass Varieties in the United States" publication. New varieties have been developed for forage or turf uses and care should be taken to ensure that proper selection is made, since turf types typically are purposely infected with the tall fescue endophyte to take advantage of increased heat, drought, and insect resistance. Most new forage-type varieties are "endophyte free" and have greater palatability and digestibility than old types. "Novel" or "non-toxic" endophytes that provide stress resistance advantages while eliminating adverse animal impacts are being used in some forage-type varieties.
Forage Information System Cultivar Database.
Tall fescue can be seeded in spring or late summer. In addition, it may be fall seeded in areas with mild winters. In the upper Great Plains, dormant winter seedings sometimes are used.
When renovating, mow or graze the existing sod short to reduce competition. This will allow new seedlings to receive the sunlight they need for establishment.
When seeded alone, seeding rate for tall fescue forage applications is typically 20-25 lbs/acre (22.4-28 kg/ha). When mixed with other species, total grass seeding rate remains the same, reducing individual grass seeding rates according to the number of species. When broadcasting, increase seeding rates by 50 percent or more, depending on seedbed condition. Reduce seeding rates by 30 percent for well-prepared seedbeds for irrigated production in the intermountain West.
Seeding depth should be between 0.25 and 0.5 inch (0.5 and 1.25 cm). When planted with a legume, 0.25 inch (0.5 cm) is preferred.
Fertilization and liming:
Although tolerant of low fertility conditions, tall fescue requires moderate fertility levels for good production. Fertilization and liming should be based on a soil test.
If soil pH is below 5.5, consult your county extension office for specific liming recommendations [typically 1-2 tons/acre (2.27-4.48 metric tons/ha) applied prior to seeding].
Tall fescue is very responsive to nitrogen (N) fertilization. For each pound (0.454 kg) of N added (up to about 250 lb N/a/yr; 113.5 kg/ha/yr), yields of dry matter increase by 20 to 30 lbs/acre (22 to 34 kg per ha). At application rates above 250 lb/a (280 kg/ha) per year, the yield increase from each unit of additional N declines. Typically, economical levels of N fertilizer are in the range of 160 lb N/a/yr (179 kg N/ha/yr).
Applications of total yearly N should be split as evenly as possible to meet the continuing need for nitrogen throughout the growing season. Make the first application at the beginning of the season and the others after each harvest except the last. Fertilization with N (50 lb/a, or 56 kg/ha) following each harvest cycle assures rapid regrowth of leaves and roots. This pattern produces greater annual yield and better quality forage than does a single, early spring application.
Legume and nitrogen fixation
The amount of atmospheric nitrogen (N2) fixed by legumes growing in combination with grasses depends on the legume species and the environment. If inorganic (plant-available) soil N is present, legumes fix less N2. Available inorganic N also increases the competition from the grass, which in turn reduces the amount of N2 fixed per unit area. Thus, to maximize the nitrogen-fixing contribution of legumes, apply only moderate amounts of fertilizer N or manure.
Boron (B) and molybdenum (Mo) are important nutrients for nitrogen- fixing legumes. Monitor legumes for deficiency symptoms. Deficiency symptoms include discoloration, streaking, or shriveling.
If you suspect micronutrient deficiencies, submit leaf samples to a certified laboratory for analysis. Your local extension agent can assist with sampling and interpretation.
Tall fescue is grown extensively for pasture, silage, and hay. It also is used for reducing soil erosion, recycling nutrients from manure and biosolids, and turf. Under grazing and mowing, tall fescue develops a mature sod in 3 to 4 years.
Since the early 1970s, tall fescue has been the predominant cool-season perennial grass in the United States, occupying nearly 35 million acres (~14 million hectares). Its wide use is due to several favorable characteristics:
Primary areas of tall fescue seed production are Oregon and Missouri.
Total US seed production acreage is approximately 440,000 acres (178,200 hectares), with seed harvest of about 220 million pounds (about 100 million kg).
Tall fescue seed production in Oregon has exceeded 44 million pounds (20 million kg) per year since 1988. Production statistics for Oregon tall fescue seed crops show that for 20 years (1963 through 1982) the area harvested and yield were stable, with an average of 13,647 acres (5,525 hectares) and 697 pounds per acre (780 kg per ha). Prior to 1983, almost all production was of forage cultivars. The introduction of turf-type cultivars lead to the rapid increase in production shown after 1983, reaching a peak of over 121 million pounds (55 million kg)in 1990.
In contrast to Oregon's dedicated seed production areas, Missouri's seed production is from pastures temporarily closed to grazing. Missouri harvests tall fescue seed from 197,600 to 321,100 acres (80,000 to 130,000 hectares) of pasture annually. Seed yield from pastures closed to grazing in advance of seed harvest are much lower than that of the specialized seed producer. Industry estimates of seed entering the market from Missouri production range from 55 to 99 million pounds (25 to 45 million kg) annually based on seed yields of 440 to 660 pounds per acre (200 to 300 kg per ha).
Tall fescue commonly is grown in rainfed and irrigated pastures throughout much of the USA. Most frequent use is for beef cattle and horse pastures, although newer, improved varieties also are used for sheep and even dairy cattle pastures.
The principal use of tall fescue in the United States is in beef cow-calf enterprises in the transition zone. Tall fescue provides abundant forage for spring-born calves. Calves can be kept on pastures until fall weaning by including legumes in pasture mixtures, feeding energy or hay supplements, or stocking on irrigated cool-season or warm-season grasses during the summer. Dry cows also can be overwintered on tall fescue pastures with supplemental hay.
Throughout the eastern portion of tall fescue's adaptation area, producers can stockpile summer and autumn vegetative growth for deferred grazing in late fall and winter. Stockpiled tall fescue loses less quality than other cool-season grasses. It remains relatively green and of acceptable quality into early winter throughout its eastern adaptation range.
Stockpiling is less successful in the Pacific Northwest due to autumn and winter rainfall and nonfrozen soil conditions. Under these conditions, stockpiled tall fescue is of lower quality than actively growing forage.
Hay and Silage
Tall fescue routinely is conserved as hay or silage for late fall and winter feed. Harvesting excess spring growth for storage as hay or silage is typical.
High yields of high-quality forage are obtained through the use of timely mechanical harvest techniques and nutrient management. Yields of 6 to 7 tons of dry matter per acre (dm/a) (13.5 to 15.7 metric tons/hectare) are possible with a high level of management and with irrigation or on subirrigated deep soils in mild climate areas. Higher elevation areas have a short growing season, and yields of 5 tons dm/a (11.2 metric tons/ha) are typical.
Tall fescue often is planted on marginally fertile slopes to stabilize soil and promote water infiltration while providing an economically sustainable forage base for livestock production. Its extensive, deep, fibrous root system makes tall fescue effective for reducing surface soil erosion by anchoring the plant in the soil. Even when clipped at 3-week intervals, tall fescue can produce 5,000 pounds of roots per acre (5,600 kg/ha). These roots decrease soil density, improve soil structure, and prevent erosion.
Tall fescue also is planted for reclaiming and stabilizing strip-mined soils and on land set aside for long-term soil conservation such as in the Conservation Reserve Program. The high density of plant tillers makes tall fescue effective in protecting the soil from erosion and filtering surface water flowing over the crop.
Good stands of tall fescue often are grazed with sheep in the wet winter months. The dense root system resists treading damage by livestock during extended periods of wet weather.
Manure and biosolids application systems
Municipal and food-processing wastes and animal manures often are applied to tall fescue as an environmentally safe means of nutrient recycling, providing an economical fertilizer.
High growth rates under high fertility and an extensive root system make tall fescue valuable in nutrient recycling systems. It can utilize 300 pounds of N per acre per year (336 kg N/ha/yr) from livestock manure or biosolids. The result is high yields of high-quality forage and protection of groundwater from nitrate contamination.
Wildlife habitat and feed:
Tall fescue is useful as wildlife feed. Geese, ducks, wild turkeys, rabbits, deer, and elk graze this forage. It also provides habitat for a variety of wildlife species.
Tall fescue is recognized as a valuable turf species in the transition zone of the United States and in similar climate zones around the world. It recently has been recognized as the turf species of choice in central-eastern China.
Wide acceptance of tall fescue as a turf species is due to the development of low-growing, high-tiller density types. Improved management practices, including proper irrigation, fertilization, and mowing practices, also contribute to its wide and growing use as a turf species.
Be aware, however, that a fungal endophyte often is added to "turf-type" varieties (E+) of tall fescue for increased pest resistance. The endophytic fungus produces toxins that can cause serious health problems for livestock. Use endophyte-infected varieties with caution, if at all, for livestock feed.
Total US seed production acreage is approximately 440,000 acres (178,200 hectares), with seed harvest of about 220 million pounds (about 100 million kg). Total farm gate value is estimated at $99 million, wholesale of $123.75 million, and retail value of $173.25 million.
U.S. seed production is mostly in Oregon, Missouri, and the lower Mid-west.
For beef cow-calf production in the east-central and southeastern United States alone, tall fescue supports more than 8.5 million beef cows on nearly 25 million acres. These pastures are predominantly tall fescue, sometimes mixed with another grass and white or red clover. If pasture/hay/silage yield was 8,000 lbs/acre (8,960 kg/ha), and was valued at $75 per 2,000 lb (908 kg), this would be $300 per acre ($741/ha) or $7.5 billion in total value. If tall fescue made up 75% of the mixture, that would place the value of tall fescue at $5.6 billion.
Throughout the world, it is valued for its tolerance of a wide range of soil and climatic factors and its high yield potential.
Soil and water conservation:
"Green values" from environmental benefits are difficult to quantify. Nevertheless, tall fescue often is planted on marginally fertile slopes to stabilize soil and promote water infiltration. Its extensive, deep, fibrous root system makes it effective for reducing surface soil erosion by anchoring the plant in the soil. These roots decrease soil density, improve soil structure, and prevent erosion. Tall fescue also is planted for reclaiming and stabilizing strip-mined soils and on land set aside for long-term soil conservation such as in the Conservation Reserve Program. The high density of plant tillers makes tall fescue effective in protecting the soil from erosion and filtering surface water flowing over the crop.
Planted on approximately 30 million acres of lawn area, contributing to 'urban and suburban greening' and 'quality of life' benefits.
David B. Hannaway, Dan Myers, and Christina Larson, Oregon State University
Marc Cool, Barenbrug - USA
04 June 2004
13 August 2004
Don Ball, Auburn University
Garry Lacefield, University of Kentucky
James B. Cropper, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)
Marty Chaney, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)
11 June 2004 (Lacefield)
15 June 2004 (Ball)
22 June 2004 (Cropper)
06 July 2004 (Chaney)