Is there an alternative to IR

Published 18 July 14

Poor summer growth? Is there an alternative to Perennial Ryegrass?

Most years and in many parts of the UK, there are prolonged dry spells which lead to disappointing levels of grass production through the summer months, but there are grass and clover species which can be used to enhance dry season production and palatability, says Francis Dunn from Field Options. These include Timothy, Cocksfoot and Tall Fescue plus White and even Red Clover.

The extended grazing seasons of these alternative species are often not appreciated. The best modern Cocksfoot, if well managed, can be as palatable as many perennial ryegrasses, but with a month longer growing season.

There are also potentially very productive herbs like Forage Chicory, Plantain, Yarrow and some Trefoils which can be either grown on their own, or in mixtures with other grasses in standard grazing mixtures, or in specialised herbal grazing paddocks. The paragraphs below summarise the benefits and briefly cover some establishment and management issues.

Drought tolerance

Herbal mixtures can outperform conventional leys on light soils, in dry areas and dry seasons. In most areas of the UK, herbal mixtures have a significantly lower annual yield than Perennial Ryegrass. However, they have different seasonal growth patterns, adding to pasture production in the summer and autumn when grass growth is poor, because Chicory, Plantain and Yarrow are deep rooted and heat tolerant.

Nutrient and health benefits

Both Forage Chicory and Plantain can dramatically enhance the trace element profile of the grazing sward. Chicory and Trefoil also have anthelmintic properties. Pastures with a high density of these and other herbs can be used as ‘tonic pastures’ to revive poor stock. The table below highlights the mineral profiles of key herbs relative to Perennial Ryegrass.  


Mineral profile of other herbage species1   


One tick = More than Perennial Ryegrass, Two ticks = Much more

alternative to IRG

1: Mineral profile compiled from a range of sources


Stock performance

Most animal trials have been done in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. In general, enhanced growth rates over Perennial Ryegrass/White Clover swards are universal due to combined nutrient quality and productivity during the trials period. Very high levels of Chicory in the diet can cause milk taint.

Soil type

Forage Chicory and Plantain will tolerate a wide range of pH from 4.5 - 7.5. Chicory will grow best in a range of pH 5.5-6.0. They root to 1m depth and are best suited to free draining soils. Plantain is particularly well adapted to lower fertility situations and can struggle in high fertility situations.


Both species establish relatively quickly, especially Chicory. Like Clovers, they should not be sown in late autumn. Slugs can be a problem at establishment. To prevent the herbs being smothered, do not use N until the mixtures are fully established.

Both Forage Chicory and Plantain are susceptible to many grassland herbicides. If there are risks of weed problems, it is good practice to sow the Chicory and Plantain on headlands only. This is because grass always establishes better on headlands, and there are fewer weed problems, so less requirement for herbicides.

Grazing management

Herbal mixes are best suited to rotational grazing. Persistence can be dramatically reduced by set stocking, especially by sheep. Avoid poaching, wherever possible, especially in winter. Herbal mixtures are not suited to regular cutting, but occasional cutting is not a problem. Plantain can easily be shaded out by more aggressive species, especially in high fertility situations and is very difficult to make into hay. Silage made from herbal mixtures should be cut at a young stage to avoid Plantain and Chicory becoming stemmy.

Though both species can regenerate if allowed to seed, the quality of the stems is poor. Heading can be controlled by efficient grazing or topping. If wet weather follows topping of Chicory, moisture may enter the hollow stem and cause it to rot. It is recommended that if it is likely to rain, roll immediately after topping to ‘seal’ the stem.