My last bit of learning from Woody Lane’s class on grass actually happened at the lunch table. I had the good fortune of sitting by him, so got another whole hour of his knowledge! The topic of discussion was of great interest to me: reed canary grass (RCG), because we have a lot of it. The above picture is what our RCG looked like when we first started to tackle it, during the winter, it would lay in dead layers of brown like this. Beyond it, you can see a field of more “normal” green pasture grass that had been well-maintained by the prior property owner, cut for cow silage multiple times per season.

Jungle Grass You Can’t Kill

Our RGC grew in two fields that got pretty wet during the winter. And it grew and grew and grew- up to about eight feet tall each summer! When we’d walk through it, we literally could not see where we were going. More than once, I fell into one of the drainage ditches while walking through the RGC fields, because I didn’t see the drop-off right in front of me!

RCG can be considered a noxious weed in our region, I believe it is a non-native species of grass. It thrives almost anywhere, even in standing water and drought areas, and displaces just about all other plants. Maybe blackberries are its only solid competitor in our climate, and they often grow together in an obnoxious thatch. It spreads via rhizome roots (as well as seed), and any small cutting of those rhizomes will spawn a new plant. So trying to destroy it via mechanical means is impossible: you will only succeed in encouraging it. 🙂 I once overheard a man at the feed store asking, “do you carry Napalm?” and I’m sure he was referring to RCG elimination strategies.

Good Nutrition, Good Wet Soil Mat, If You Can Control It

I asked my NRCS farm planner for advice on the RGC a few years ago, thinking, at first, that it was a “junk” species of pasture graze. But, she said that it is actually a good forage, as long as its kept in the tender growth stage where it’s palatable and digestible. She utilizes it on her cattle ranch. And she added that it’s useful for keeping wet areas walk-able, and even drive-able, because it creates such a thatchy carpet of old growth and roots. Regular grass would  just turn into a mud mess with traffic, when the soil is wet.

But once you let it get eight feet tall, it gets almost bamboo-like. I have cut my hands on it trying to tear out a strand. Ruminants, despite their champion ability to turn cellulose into energy, find mature RCG to be beyond their limits of tolerable food. So, the key is to keep it mowed during its voracious growth season, to keep it under control.

But control is a tenuous sate with RCG, which, I swear, can grow several inches per day when it rains. The delicate issue is that it’s often growing in wet pastures, and growing during the wet season, so mowing can be difficult or impossible. And before you know it, your RCG has control of you!

Not For Beginners

This was the question posed to Woody Lane by Allison, one of my fellow KHSI Expo attendees: “what do I do with my reed canary grass lake?” 😀 Allison had the most extreme problem you can get with RCG: it grew in a location that had standing water much of the year, so there was no way to get a mower in there. And yet, she reported that her sheep would choose to stand in the water to graze it, even though they had dry ground elsewhere. That is a testament to RCG’s nutrition and palatability in its tender growth stages, that sheep are willing to wade to eat it!

Allison asked “can I get rid of it?” Woody’s answer was quick and emphatic, “no way.” If you’ve got RCG, you’re stuck with it, for better or worse, until you die (because it never will). You just have to learn to make the marriage work, and eventually, you may even find happiness with your RGC.

Woody had a great summary of life with RCG: “it’s a great forage, but it’s not a beginner’s grass.” Indeed. But there is hope: I am here to say that with effort and strategy, we have gotten our RGC under control and, I might even say, well-managed. Woody confirmed what we’ve been learning lately: RCG is very nutritional, but needs careful management and use of a mower.

Start with Reconnaissance Mowing

Here’s how we did it. Kirk was the brave soldier who first tackled this project. He started humbly: with the string trimmer. Forging little foot paths through the grassy forest, so that we could see the terrain, a little bit at a time. You have to have a whompin’ string trimmer to cut RCG. And the only way we’ve found to do it is to let the string trimmer wind up to its fastest RPMs in free air, then quickly whip it through a small section of RCG, leveraging a momentary force of string momentum big enough to actually cut down a few stalks. It is slow going; and often, it just winds up on the string trimmer and kills the motor, leaving you cursing. Kirk had some luck with an old fashioned scythe as well. But it’s gotta be sharp; a dull machete or other blade will merely bend the stalks and give you an arm injury.

Once we had some sense of the lay of the land, it was possible to get the tractor in there, during a dry August, and mow with a very sturdy brush cutter. We only got the tractor stuck once or twice. 😉 Again, this was tedious progress, Kirk would often drive a few feet, get off and walk a few feet in front of the tractor to check for holes and foreign objects, then drive a few more feet. He’d mark with stakes any danger zones, for future reference, and mow those by hand with the string trimmer. This first stage of reclaiming the land from eight foot tall RGC is the hardest.

Brown Turns to Green, With Time

The first many times you mow a tall stand of RGC, it looks horrible. It’s not encouraging at all. All the cut grass on top is clumped in brown, dead blobs; and the short live grass looks yellow and anemic. But, have faith, if you keep mowing it, and mulching all that cut stuff, over time, it starts to green up and flourish. And it takes on the look of a groomed field of grass. You just can’t get behind on the mowing. That’s all. 🙂 Here is what our center field looks like today (with the llama enjoying a sneak preview of the graze):


In our third field of RCG, we had serious soil wetness issues, like Allison has, where we couldn’t get a tractor in there at all. It was necessary to improve the drainage ditch systems in that area, to get the field passable and therefore mow-able. So, for Allison’s question of how to handle her RCG areas that were under water a good part of the year, installing a drainage system (ditches, French drains or the like) would be the first required step; unless the area was small enough to use a string trimmer and hip waders. 🙂

Ruminant Nutrition In Great Volumes

One thing is clear: you can get a large volume of grass off an RCG field, it grows like crazy. Check out this article, quoting someone getting twenty tons per acre!  I’ve tried to look up research on the nutritional values of RCG, but haven’t found a lot of official studies. It seems that the general agreement is that it’s in the range of 15-22% crude protein, so it’s often competitive with alfalfa. It also has high TDN values as other grass hay (50-60%).

There is concern over high alkaloid content which reduces palatability; but there are low-alkaloid varieties. I’m not sure what we have growing naturally in our region, probably the “original” kind, not the improved variety. Our sheep seem willing to eat it, as long as it’s young.

I found references on the Internet to some cattle dying of poisoning linked to RGC in West Virginia this last spring, the conclusion being that the alkaloids can get to a toxic level during droughts or re-growth after cutting or grazing. But it sounds like this is rare, because a lot of people use RCG for graze, especially in our region, where it grows rampantly everywhere.

Learning Curve

We haven’t officially grazed our RCG pastures yet, I’m still finishing the fencing there. Mowing is easy, since you can do the whole field at once. Rotational grazing is going to be much trickier, so I’m sure it’ll take a few years to get a good system down. But I’m looking forward to using that grass, the first time will hopefully  be when I flush the ewes prior to breeding, starting next month. And hopefully Woody’s system of pasture mass estimation will get put to good use, as I learn to estimate the differences in yield between our regular pasture grass and the RCG fields.