Do you miss that old-time bluegrass?
Many people associate bluegrass with Kentucky, but when I was a boy, the pastures in Rappahannock were full of bluegrass while the hayfields were brimming with orchard grass, the predominant seed and hay crop.
Now, bluegrass in a pasture field is hard to find, and orchard grass seems to be suffering the same fate.
My father used to say that if the soil were properly balanced, bluegrass would naturally grow. According to him, it was the native grass; one did not have to sow it because it was already in the soil.
There are many benefits to bluegrass pasture, chief among them being the weight that cattle gain while grazing it. It is, however, a cool-season grass as it tends to go semi-dormant during the hot summer. Thus, stocking rates on bluegrass cannot be as high as on other grasses.
In the old days, I have personally had steers that gained three pounds per day grazing bluegrass pastures. Over in Highland County, I have heard of weight gains on bluegrass-grazed cattle approaching four pounds per day. Cattle fattened on bluegrass will produce tasty and tender beef, not unlike corn-fed beef.
Unfortunately, the bluegrass fields are gone from Rappahannock County. There are many reasons for this. Near the top of the list is the onslaught of fescue, which was introduced to the county in the late 1960s. Whenever a road was widened, fescue, chosen for its ability to grow almost anywhere, was sown on the road banks. From the road banks it spread into the pastures and in the process choked out the bluegrass.
The highway department is not the only culprit for the unbridled spread of fescue. Virginia Tech encouraged farmers to sow fescue as it was thought to be good for winter grazing. (A UVa. alum might be tempted to say that Virginia Tech knows more about football than farming, but I won’t say it.)
Cattle will graze fescue in the late fall, winter and early spring. During the rest of the year, fescue is toxic to cattle due to a fungus carried by the grass. Low conception rates, spontaneous abortions, still-born calves,and negative weight gains are just a few of the problems associated with fescue.
Unfortunately, once fescue takes root and begins to spread, it is hard to control. Due to the lay of the land, the rocks, the dormant seeds in the soil, and many other obstacles, it would be prohibitively expensive to rid the average farm of fescue. My solution to this problem has been to base my breeding program on a cow’s ability to tolerate fescue. Some cows seem to tolerate it better than others, and the ones that do not get culled out of the herd. It is not a perfect solution, but it does allow me to stay in the business.
Fescue is also related to the demise of orchard grass. Not too many years ago, Rappahannock, Loudoun and Fauquier counties were known as the orchard grass seed capital of the world. Thousands of acres of orchard grass were devoted to seed production. The infiltration of fescue into the orchard grass fields rendered the orchard grass impure and unsuitable for sale as seed.
Today, when a farmer buys orchard grass seed, it probably comes from Oregon. Instead of lasting several lifetimes as the hearty old orchard grass stands would, this new seed seems to last only a few years as it is susceptible to a host of pests such as white grubs and bill bugs.
There are many other external factors that have affected both of these grasses. Years of acid rain have lowered the PH of the soil. Global warming may play a role in this too (remember that bluegrass is a cool-season grass).
I do not know for a fact that the summers are hotter, but I do know that cows nowadays can be turned out on grass the first week in April, as opposed to the third week, as was the case in the old days. Spring seems to be coming earlier.
I am not an expert on any of these subjects. I have simply stated what I have seen. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by looking.” If any reader knows how to rid the county of fescue and bring back the bluegrass and orchard grass, then that person would have my vote for the Rappahannock News’ citizen of the century.
Mike Massie’s family has farmed in Rappahannock County for generations.