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An Old Forage Makes A Come Back

This comes to us from the August 2015 issue of the Agriculture Research Service’s AgResearch Magazine and was written by Dennis O’Brien. I’ve added some additional information to the original article.

HiddenValleyFescueKeyFactsA forgotten forage grass imported from Europe in the 1800s could soon be helping to boost cattle and dairy production. The grass, which has adapted well to parts of the Upper Midwest, has been released by Agricultural Research Service scientists in Madison, Wisconsin.

This meadow fescue, called “Hidden Valley” for the farm where it was found on a shaded hilltop in a long-time pasture that had never been seeded with commercial forages. Cattle thrived on it and it gradually spread from the hilltop grove into gullies and open areas, possibly because cattle eating the ripe seed spread it in their manure. The farmer fed hay made from it to more cattle, to spread it further. He also eventually began consulting with ARS plant geneticist Michael Casler and his colleagues at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center.

Casler and his colleagues have since spent more than a decade evaluating the grass. In field trials and other tests, they evaluated how cattle respond to it and how well it grows in a variety of locations. They found that it produces a 9-percent lower yield than orchardgrass and tall fescue, but has a 9-percent higher rate of neutral detergent fiber digestibility. That means cattle digest it more easily and eat more of it, in turn gaining more weight and producing more milk. Research also shows that it has adapted to the Upper Mississippi River Basin by developing several desirable traits. It is drought tolerant and winter hardy, capable of surviving freezing temperatures and repeated grazing.

Digestibility of Hidden Valley Fescue

A pasture of Hidden Valley meadow fescue on a farm near Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Michael Casler
A pasture of Hidden Valley meadow fescue on a farm near Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Michael Casler

Like other meadow fescues, it has an endophyte (symbiotic fungus) that gives it some degree of environmental protection. But it does not produce the compounds found in tall fescue that can sometimes harm cattle. Surveys of the Upper Midwest “Driftless Region,” which includes parts of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, also show that it can be found in a wide range of habitats and seems to grow well on land taken out of crop production and allowed to revert to pasture.

DNA tests show it to be a meadow fescue brought to the United States by European settlers in the 1800s. By the 1950s, meadow fescues had largely been replaced with higher yielding tall fescues and other grasses. But they never completely disappeared as forages. A movement toward managed grazing operations in the 1980s prompted renewed interest in them, and ARS researchers and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin evaluated 91 varieties in extensive field trials, including seven European varieties, on three Wisconsin dairy farms. But Hidden Valley stands out, according to Casler. “What was originally found on this farm is really remarkable,” he says.

Hidden Valley is best meadow fescue

Where Can You Get It?

Casler released Hidden Valley in June 2014, publishing an announcement in the Journal of Plant Registrations. Anyone has the right to produce and market seed of Hidden Valley – there are no exclusive contracts or agreements with USDA or the University of Wisconsin. The variety now belongs to the public domain.

KeepArticlesComingJoinThe USDA has been working to release and market Hidden Valley. Casler says that “Poor seed production in Oregon and market forces that favored planting corn have eliminated any interest in the customary options for commercial seed production of Hidden Valley.”  Fortunately though, in January 2013, Larry Smith volunteered to plant a seed production field of Hidden Valley at his farm in western Wisconsin. Smith’s seed will be classified as Breeders Seed. It will be shipped to Canada for Foundation or Certified Seed production, which should be on the market in 2 years.

So stay tuned and watch for Hidden Vally meadow fescue coming to a seed store near you in 2017.


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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


    • At the 20 minute mark starts the interesting potion on the difference grass choice can make. I know “preaching to the choir” in this group but it is a striking difference in video form.

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