Grassland establishment: variety choice

“Don’t just accept what your seed merchant has to sell – first talk about your needs.” That’s Janet Montgomery, agriculture product manager for Barenbrug UK, advising farmers planning new leys and swards.

“Don’t just accept what your seed merchant has to sell – first talk about your needs.”

That’s Janet Montgomery, agriculture product manager for Barenbrug UK, advising farmers planning new leys and swards.


“Before speaking to your merchant, know your hopes and dreams for the grass you want to grow. Then have that conversation confidently and knowledgeably.”


Those ‘hopes and dreams’, she says, will influence every subsequent decision and will ultimately allow selection of the most appropriate variety.


“Although it’s rarely one variety; we favour seed mixtures, which deliver a more flexible, more resilient sward.”

Variety choice

First consideration, Janet suggests, should be how long the field will be in grass; then the livestock it’s intended to support. “Are you looking for maintenance, gain or production? Cut or graze? How does this field, or fields, fit the farm’s overall fodder flow?”


Intended sward lifespan is generally the most important factor in any variety selection decision, she says. “Short-term ley or grass with longevity?”


Another decision point is heading date. “Do you want grass that jets away in early spring? Or something that maintains its quality through the first cut of silage?


“Think about heading dates across the farm. It’s best to have a mix – plan them sequentially if you can – so that spring management isn’t too hectic and you don’t face an everything-everywhere-all-at-once moment.”


By considering and identifying these factors – their relevance to your farm, your system, your production objectives – it’s easier to sift the options, Janet explains.


“At a basic level, your field’s intended lifespan indicates which species – Italian rye-grass, perennial rye-grass, hybrid, Westerwolds – suits your needs. A short-term ley of two to three years makes IRG your likely bet. Long-term commitments favour PRG, while hybrids fall in the middle.”


Many growers shy away from getting into deliberation or discussion about diploid or tetraploid varieties, Janet says, but it’s important. “I find it’s usually the point at which eyes glaze over,” she laughs, “and yes, it can seem esoteric. But it really isn’t, and each type has key characteristics.


“Get beyond the terminology and it’s simple. Diploid rye-grasses possess two sets of chromosomes in each cell; tetraploids have four. That’s all there is to it. It’s the characteristics you should be concerned about, rather than the genetics!”


Janet says the effect of the extra sets of chromosomes is to increase the size of the plant’s cells: larger tetraploid cells have a higher ratio of cell contents to cell wall material.


“Bigger cells, more cell contents, more of the nutrients like sugars and starches needed for good digestibility: that’s what you’ll find in tetraploids. Generally, they provide better feed quality and those extra sugars can often improve palatability, which encourages higher intake.


“Diploids, conversely, have smaller cells and lower water-soluble carbohydrate content. Diploids also display higher tiller densities and, despite smaller leaves, generate higher and thicker swards.”


Janet points out that this makes a diploid sward more competitive against weeds, more forgiving under grazing stress, more resilient to harsh weather, and more persistent over time.


“Now, while some people will say that tetraploids are better nutritionally, that doesn’t mean diploids are a poor choice.”


The advantage of sowing a mixed sward, says Janet, is the ‘best of both worlds’. “Benefit from improved tetraploid digestibility, while diploids endow the sward with longevity and resilience.”


Resilience will become increasingly important, Janet argues, owing to climate change. “More drought-like periods in spring and summer, wetter winters, and greater swings in temperature – all these things take their toll on a grass sward.


“Barenbrug has its own breeding operation in the UK, where we’re breeding UK varieties to suit UK condition. We’re already thinking about will be needed in the grass varieties of the 2040s, such as deeper-rooters that are more drought resistant and increase soil biomass for greater carbon capture.”


For 2023, however, Janet sets out three broad options to help identify appropriate characteristics for differing production goals. “Use these suggestions to define your needs and discuss with your seed merchant; whether or not they use Barenbrug seed in their mixtures, the principles will give you a starting point for that discussion.”


Focus on conserved feed

For those seeking high output, high quality conserved feed, Janet suggests a hybrid tetraploid rye-grass as a mainstay in a mixture. “Bar Forage Hybrid 4x4, for example, relies on Bannfoot hybrid with diploid supplements. That’ll give you four cuts in a year and a 3-5 year rotation.”


Quality with flexibility

Some farmers want a solution that doesn’t commit them to a fixed outcome, Janet acknowledges. “A mixture that’s suited to both forage and grazing use can include clover alongside a blend of intermediate and late-heading perennial rye-grasses. Galgorm and Seagoe feature on the 2022-23 Recommended Lists, topping them for highest grazing and conservation yield respectively.”


Perennial pasture

Permanent pasture enjoys a loyal following, says Janet. “It’s ideal for those who want productive grass without getting too involved with grass management.” Janet suggests Ballyvoy – a diploid PRG with strong spring growth – and Ballintoy – a tetraploid PRG with strong seasonal consistency – as strong choices, or varieties with similar characteristics.


A multi-species sward or ‘herbal ley’ might be another option, muses Janet. “They’re not complicated: adding white and red clover, chicory or plantain are the easiest ways. There’s growing evidence to demonstrate the value of herbal leys – better soil health, improved livestock health, while providing a robust and resilient source of feed and fibre.


“They won’t be for everyone but we’ve seen our own option, Barmix, become a best-selling product in the last few years. Combining perennial rye-grasses, tall fescue, cocksfoot, timothy and white clover gives a variety of rooting dynamics, and it’s especially suitable for sheep and beef production.”