February 26, 2013
Differentiating Forage Rye and Ryegrass
What comes to mind when you hear "forage rye?" What about "ryegrass?" These words can describe half a dozen, very different types of forage, which can lead to some confusion when selecting seed.
"Rye" typically refers to the cereal or small grain plant. As a forage, it can produce high tonnage but is relatively coarse and less palatable than some other forages. Like wheat, there can be either winter ryes or spring ryes. Spring-planted ryes tend to grow tall and form seed, while winter ryes stay short and produce leaves but no seeds. Fall-planted spring types grow tall but die over winter. Winter varieties stay leafy during fall, survive winter and grow tall and form seed the next spring.
"Ryegrass," though, is a very palatable, high quality forage grass. There are several types of ryegrass and variety differences within each type. For example, perennial ryegrass produces very high quality pasture but only lasts for a few years under most Nebraska conditions.
The biggest confusion comes from annual ryegrass and Italian ryegrass. Technically, they refer to the same plants but in the forage world they have acquired different meanings. Annual ryegrass refers to varieties that are used for turf or for winter and spring forage in the Gulf-state region. Spring plantings in Nebraska head out and regrow very slowly during the heat of early summer, usually dying over winter. Italian ryegrass, however, is more like a biennial and produces mostly leaves while growing throughout summer and fall if moisture is available. Many varieties survive winter and then produce seedheads the following spring.
If you aren't sure whether you want rye or ryegrass or which variety of either, be sure to carefully describe to your seed dealer when you want to plant and how you want to use your grass. They can help you get the right kind of rye or ryegrass.
Extension Forage Specialist