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Tall Wheatgrass (Agropyron elongatum)

Plant Species
From Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook *
 By
S. Smoliak, R.L. Ditterline, J.D. Scheetz, L.K. Holzworth, J.R. Sims, L.E. Wiesner, D.E. Baldridge, and G.L. Tibke

Tall wheatgrass is a tall, coarse, late-maturing bunchgrass. It is native to saline meadows and seashores of southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. It was introduced into the United States from Turkey.

For many years, it created little interest because it is coarse, not particularly drought tolerant and slow to establish. However, it has demonstrated its ability to thrive in subirrigated, saline soil where foxtail barley is usually the dominant grass. Tall wheatgrass is the latest-maturing grass adapted to the continental climate areas of the west and also one of the most productive.

Description

Tall wheatgrass is a bunchgrass that extends its size by producing tufts on short rootstocks at the edge of mature plants. Long, coarse, light green, basal leaves surround several leafy stems that are 3 to 7 feet tall. The heads are similar to those of intermediate wheatgrass but are generally longer, 6 to 10 inches long. The seed is somewhat larger than that of intermediate wheatgrass and generally does not germinate as well. The glumes are square at the top.

Tall wheatgrass is late maturing, flowers during the last two weeks in July and ripens seed in September.

Adaptation

Tall wheatgrass is especially tolerant of saline soils. It is adapted to irrigated or subirrigated saline soils and to imperfectly-drained, alkali soils. It prefers soils with a high water table. It can survive five weeks of flooding in the spring and can, therefore, be seeded on land that is wet for some time in spring.

The ability of this grass to grow and maintain itself on moist, moderately-alkaline soils has resulted in its extensive use in reclaiming such areas. It will not develop in dry, alkaline sites, nor will it grow where the soil is so alkaline that native plants or weeds cannot persist. It has been established on soils with a pH as high as 10.1.

It will grow and persist in areas receiving more than 16 inches of precipitation annually. It is winterhardy with good spring recovery, starting growth about two weeks later than orchardgrass.

It can be established with good cultural methods in most areas except where high amounts of salt are present. In such situations, the soluble salts should be leached out or flushed off and the existing competition should be eliminated by plowing when the soil is dry. It is usually seeded alone. It will grow at elevations of 500 to 6,000 feet.

Tall wheatgrass, when not grazed or mowed, will remain erect until after the following year's growth reaches maturity. It affords excellent cover for birds and other wildlife, and like basin wildrye, is sometimes used by ranchers for protection during calving or lambing. It is also very useful for grass barriers in cropland to control wind erosion and to manage snow.

Tall wheatgrass is used in wildlife plantings where its tall, persistent, bunchy growth provides nesting sites and cover for upland gamebirds. In wildlife plantings interrupted drill strips, alternated with lower growing species, provide excellent cover and good hunting.

Limitations

The seed generally does not germinate well and the seedlings develop slowly. The young seedlings do not compete successfully with weeds during the establishment year.

Under dry conditions, tall wheatgrass does not live long; but where moisture conditions are good, it produces well for many years. It is not particularly drought tolerant.

Protection for one full season is required for establishing tall wheatgrass on irrigated land and for two seasons under dryland. The newly established plants should be allowed to mature and set seed before harvesting or grazing.

Use for Hay

Tall wheatgrass makes fair-quality hay and can be used successfully for silage. In the early heading stage, it is higher in digestible protein and in total digestible nutrients than other wheatgrasses. The period of most rapid growth is in June, and hay is cut in the flower stage in late July. It produces high yields of hay, which are readily eaten by sheep and cattle if cut before or shortly after heading. It does not exhibit temperature dormancy like many native wheatgrasses, and makes good recovery after cutting and good fall growth.

Use for Pasture

Tall wheatgrass, because of its late maturity, provides a long grazing period when used for pasture, but it is not as palatable as most other wheatgrasses or other pasture grasses. When planted in pure stands and fenced, tall wheatgrass is readily grazed by sheep or cattle, especially the coarse leaves, and cattle and sheep make excellent gains on it. It must be grazed to maintain the plants in the vegetative state.

Tall wheatgrasses require special management to maintain a good stand. This grass should never be mowed or grazed lower than 6 inches above the ground. When grazed frequently, this height should be at least 10 inches. Regulating grazing height is easily accomplished by cutting the crop for hay one year at the prescribed grazing height. The coarse, stiff stubble which remains prevents cattle from grazing closer than the cutting height in the fall of the following year. Thereafter the grazing height will be maintained by the cattle themselves. What little forage is lost by these high defoliation heights is mostly coarse, unpalatable stems. It may need occasional mowing if too much old growth accumulates.

Seed Production

Seed production is good, averaging 300 pounds per acre or better. Seeds are large, heavy and easily handled and processed. Seed production should be confined to lower elevations and long growing seasons due to the late maturity of the seed. Tall wheatgrass matures seed in late August or September.

 

* The Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook (EB69) is no longer in print, but is available for viewing in
Montana County Extension Service and National Resource Conservation Service Offices.