This is the first installment in the Forage Managment section of our blog. For more information on why I’m doing this, click here.
Timothy grass (Phleum pratense, or Herd’s Grass) is most likely the base of hay you buy in New England – it’s the predominant species for most well-cared-for and cultivated hayfields around here. This is precisely why there isn’t much of it here at the Flying T, though since I have found a few specimens here and there around the property, I suspect that at one time, there was a hayfield. Since it is such a quality forage, before I started the Forage course at UNH, my plan had been to try to get Timothy back in play in our pastures. That’s no longer our plan.
Timothy - Photo by Immunetech, Inc
Timothy is indeed an awesome forage – highly palatable, yielding relatively high yields of quality digestible dry matter (DDM), and with a solid mix of nutrients and fiber (running around 10% protein, depending on quality and handling). However, it’s a bit more finicky than other forages and needs careful soil management to maintain a strong stand. In addition, frequent cutting or grazing can kill it, which makes it less than optimum as a pasture crop. As I lamented in this post, I’m in the process of bringing our soil pH and nutrition upwards, and that combined with the heavy grazing pressure in our primary pasture means we need to target a different species.
However, there is one place on the Flying T where we have no shortage of Timothy – our hayloft. It’s easy to identify by the compact inflorescence (flower/seedhead) that looks an awful lot like a Labrador Retriever’s tail. Most Timothy hay sold up here is actually Timothy mixed with other common grasses like Orchardgrass and Smooth Bromegrass, and legumes like Red Clover, Vetch and Birdsfoot Trefoil, which bring the protein levels up a bit. The thin leaves and stems of Timothy, as well as its tendency not to be too dusty, are what make it so tasty to horses, and it doesn’t get bitter (or even toxic) when it matures, like some Fescues. Like most other grasses, Timothy can get into the 20% range for protein content in the early vegetative state, which is more useful to grazing than hay (and remember, close grazing will kill it). By the time it’s ready for haying, Timothy’s protein content usually is closer to 10%.
Timothy grows in small bunches and spreads only through seeds, not stolons or rhizomes, and has somewhat shallow roots when compared to Orchardgrass or Fescue. It does best in cool, moist environments, but isn’t tolerant to flooding (or extreme heat or draught, for that matter). It can take slightly acidic soil, doing best in pHs around 5.5-6.5.
Timothy is relatively easy to establish, is best planted late summer or early spring, and isn’t too competitive with other species, making it ideal as a companion crop (as long as its companion isn’t too aggressive). As I wrote above, it does better for hay or silage than pasture, unless the grazing is well-rotated to keep it from being grazed too short and to allow it to recover. It produces well, but not as much as the big boys like Reed Canarygrass and Orchardgrass.
Foxtail inflorescence. Photo by Missouri Extension
Because of its low dust, high-quality nutrition, and palatable form, Timothy is also commonly sold at pet stores for feeding small rodents like Guinea Pigs and Chinchillas, as well as rabbits and more exotic herbivores. The prices, though, are pretty steep! I paid $5 per 40 to 45-lb square bale (delivered, with help stacking) a few months ago. I just looked up on Petco.com and found a 6lb bag of Timothy on “sale” for $15.99. That’s $100 – $120 a bale! If I could manage 3 tons an acre, that’s $18K per cutting per acre. Hey, maybe I should start growing Timothy… or maybe I’ll just sell an Internet pamphlet on how to get rich quick growing grass (the legal kind)!