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Timothy (Phleum pratense)

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

Timothy was introduced to North America by seed carried from Europe by early settlers in hay, litter, manure and ballast cleaned from ships. It was found growing in New Hampshire in about 1711 and was named "herdsgrass". It was first given the name timothy in 1747 and soon became an adapted, high-quality hay plant. It spread from New England into eastern Canada before 1800, and then westward as the country was settled.

The name "timothy" covers two species. Turf timothy, P. bertolonii, originally called P. nodosum, a diploid (2n = 14), is morphologically very similar to common timothy, P. pratense, a hexaploid (2n = 42). Turf timothy is more slender and smaller, and is used for pastures and as turf for sports fields. Common timothy can be readily identified by its larger size, longer and wider leaf blades and spike-like head and longer awns.

Description

Timothy is a rapidly-developing, short-lived, perennial bunchgrass with shallow, fibrous roots extending downward to about 4 feet. Its crown consists of a group of bulb-like sections called corms. These produce a mass of basal leaves and usually one leafy stem of 20 to 40 inches that ends in a seed head. All leaves are soft, light green and 2 to 6 inches long. The single seed is small and is enclosed in an awned, urn-shaped husk. Individual timothy shoots are typically biennial, but the plant maintains itself as a perennial through the development and growth of new shoots from bases of older culms.

Adaptation

Timothy volunteers readily and is adapted to the cooler, moister areas of Montana, especially the poorly-drained alluvial soils, where it grows vigorously. As it is very tolerant of acidity, withstands some spring flooding and does well on waterlogged soils, it is well suited for use in low-lying, peaty areas. Timothy also thrives on clay, silt and sandy soils in cool climate regions with precipitation greater than 15 inches per year.

It is winterhardy, persistent and fairly free from problems caused by insects, diseases and other pests. It is widely adapted and can be grown successfully under a wide range of soil and climatic conditions. Timothy is hardy at elevations up to 9,000 feet. Timothy survives a few weeks of flooding during the winter, but only a few days in the growing season. Seedling vigor is good and stand establishment usually is rapid. It ranks high in productivity among the grasses.

Limitations

The major limitation of timothy is its shallow root system and the resulting low tolerance of drought. It does not tolerate salt or alkalinity so that it is not adapted to sloughs and low lands in many areas of Montana.

Its small seed size necessitates very shallow seeding and makes even distribution of seed difficult with conventional drills. Established plants are intolerant of shade and do not withstand lengthy flooding during the growing season. It is susceptible to winter crown and root rots. Root production has been reported as low when compared to other grasses.

It should not be cut or grazed during the two week period before heads emerge as this is a critical stage in the growth of the plant. Removing the top growth at this time greatly weakens the original plants, and the cycle of regeneration is interrupted because the buds for the second shoots are not adequately formed.

Use for Hay

Timothy is well suited to hay production, and timothy hay is especially desirable for the horse hay market. Growth is erect, easy to harvest and a full yield is normally possible in the first production year after seeding. Because of its bunch growth habit, it is less competitive for nutrients when grown in mixtures with legumes. Bunch growth also allows for alternate-row seeding which makes it ideal for mixtures with alsike and red clover and, in some cases, it is preferred for use with alfalfa.

Its main drawback is the serious loss of quality (protein) experienced if it is not harvested for hay before the bloom stage. Growing timothy in mixtures with legumes and harvesting early will overcome this problem. Although timothy is fairly tolerant of low fertility, the application of fertilizer, especially nitrogen, increases both yield and protein.

Timothy has been the standard hay for horses. When cut in full bloom, its high energy and low protein content were ideal for working stock. Its popularity is due to the fact that the grass seldom lodges, and is easily cured into bright, clean hay that is free from dust or mold and which can be handled with little waste.

Use for Pasture

Where adapted, timothy is commonly used for pastures. Spring growth is not too early although yield and palatability are very high. Leafy shoots are of excellent quality. Like smooth bromegrass, however, the main growth occurs in early summer and the tall shoots are easily overgrazed. Pasture rotation is critical and a much greater area is required after mid-July to compensate for decreased growth rate.

This grass is palatable to cattle and horses at all stages of growth. Deer and elk appear to only graze mature timothy plants after other grasses have been used. As a pasture plant, it is relatively short-lived and stands are soon depleted unless provision is made for natural or artificial reseeding. It produces an open sod that is easily weakened if heavily grazed.

Seed Production

Timothy has small, hard seeds that shatter easily when mature. These seeds are easily harvested with good standard, cultural procedures. Seed yields of timothy average 400 to 500 pounds per acre. Seed retains a viability of more than 70 percent for five years in cool, dry warehouse storage.

* 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.