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Temperate perennial grasses with limited salinity tolerance


8.5  Establishment & management of temperate perennial grasses


Choosing the right species, varieties and companion legumes

No varieties of phalaris or tall fescue have been selected for salinity tolerance and the relative salinity and waterlogging tolerances of existing varieties are not known so specific advice for saltland is not possible.

We suggest that farmers use varieties that have been proven locally as well-adapted to non-saline land as the seed will be easily available, and the management requirements will be well known.

There is information available to assist with selecting the particular varieties that might be suitable to a particular situation (not including salinity tolerance, but there are other important considerations such as degree of summer growth) for phalaris and tall fescue. CSIRO has a useful fact sheet on choosing phalaris.

Phalaris and tall fescue respond well to high nitrogen conditions – to meet this nitrogen demand requires that the pasture contains a strong legume component. The most appropriate companion legumes will be determined by the climate and the salinity and waterlogging levels at the site. The potential companion legumes are examined in Saltland Solution 10 – Legumes for saltland.


Weed and pest control

Once established, phalaris and tall fescue are strongly competitive against weeds, but both (especially tall fescue) have relatively weak seedlings so effective weed control is critical for good establishment. Similarly emerging pastures can be highly prone to insect attack for the first few weeks, but are relatively resistant once established.

Establishing these grasses on saline sites does not reduce the need for weed control, even if the site appears to be quite bare – the very act of sowing the pasture will usually stimulate a significant weed germination. As with new pastures for non-saline areas, weed control on the site should commence in the year prior to sowing. Most of the problem weed species on saline sites will be annuals and it will be essential to reduce their seed set in the spring of the year prior to pasture establishment. It is particularly critical to control annual grass weeds as there are no selective herbicides that can remove annual grasses from phalaris or tall fescue pastures. Spring weed control can be done with either a knock down or a selective herbicide depending on the weed species. If the site is bare over summer, soil salinity levels will increase, so it is important not to graze the site after herbicide application. This is even more important if the site is erosion prone.

Sustainable Grazing on Saline Land (SGSL) program and the Victorian DPI combined to produce two new fact sheets for these species. For more information, see Tall Fescue establishment and management in saline areas and Phalaris.

If other weeds common to saline areas (such as Juncus or rush species, or summer-growing grasses such as marine couch that are harder to control than the annual weeds) are present on the site, there may be specific management requirements to control them so seek advice from a local agronomist before implementing a weed control program.

For spiny rush control.

Follow up weed control at the time of sowing is also essential.


Establishment techniques and timing

The most common sowing time for both phalaris and tall fescue on non-saline sites is autumn/early winter (ie April to June) after the opening rains – the later the sowing date, the slower the emergence and early growth and therefore, the greater the need for excellent weed control. In higher rainfall or higher altitude areas, spring sowing can also be successful if there is significant rainfall during spring and summer and adequate weed control. 

Establishment on saline sites should aim for similar times of sowing, but this is complicated by the fact that saline sites often become untrafficable soon after the opening rains, greatly reducing the time available for pasture establishment. Similarly, with spring sowing, the site may not dry off sufficiently to sow a pasture until late in spring, giving the grasses insufficient time to establish a substantial root system to allow them to survive the first summer.

Neither species is suited to sowing with a cover crop such as barley (that is suited to similar salinity conditions) because the seedlings are uncompetitive and usually will not develop sufficiently to survive over the first summer.

Depending on the site and available equipment, both phalaris and tall fescue can be direct drilled, or sown into a conventional seedbed, as long as the sowing depth does not exceed about 1.5cm. Direct drilling is usually preferred as saline sites often have high erosion potential. Seeding rates are 1 - 3 kg/ha for phalaris and 6 - 10 kg/ha for tall fescue with the heavier seeding rates applying when there are no other grasses being sown.

Phalaris has a slightly more vigorous seedling and can be successfully established by aerial seeding – for modest sized saline sites, this means ‘hand’ spreading is a viable option for phalaris but not for tall fescue.

In summary, the best time to establish these temperate perennial grasses is as soon as possible after the autumn rains have germinated the first flush of weeds. These weeds must be controlled mechanically or chemically at the time of sowing the pasture. Spring sowing becomes more viable in northern, more summer dominant rainfall zones where there is likely to be follow up rainfall to ensure survival over the first summer.

To ensure successful establishment of the pasture, it is best to avoid grazing in the spring following sowing – the pasture can then be grazed down in late summer/autumn in preparation for the opening rains.

Some of the knowledge about establishing saltland pastures from the SGSL initiative has been captured in a Victorian DPI Agnote and the NSW Department of Natural Resources has a useful booklet Steps to Establish Salt-Tolerant Pasture.

Follow up weed control at the time of sowing is also essential.


Fertiliser and soil amelioration

There are standard recommendations for fertiliser use in all districts where phalaris and tall fescue are traditional pasture species. As there have been no specific trials to determine if the standard recommendations for fertiliser application to phalaris and tall fescue pastures apply equally to saltland, we have to assume that they do!

Both phalaris and tall fescue have been selected to perform well under relatively high levels of soil fertility. It is likely that if the soil fertility is low, when added to the stress associated with salinity, then these ‘improved’ species will struggle to persist.

As with pastures for non-saline land, a current soil test of the area is the best approach to sensible fertiliser and ameliorant (lime or gypsum) decisions. Saline soils can have a quite different pH to adjacent, non-saline land – sometimes more acid, sometimes more alkaline. Neither phalaris nor tall fescue can tolerate highly acid soils, so lime application and incorporation may be needed. However, the need to apply high rates of lime and fertiliser to a saline site can dramatically reduce the profitability associated with the pasture establishment and this needs to be carefully considered. In this case more acid and salt tolerant species such as tall wheatgrass should be sown.

At the time of sowing, a ‘starter’ fertiliser with added nitrogen will be more effective than superphosphate alone because saline sites usually have a history of very low legume content so there will not be a strong bank of soil nitrogen for the grass seedlings to access.


Grazing options and grazing management

There is a wealth of information about grazing management for these temperate perennial grasses because of their widespread use in non-saline grazing systems. With a little adjustment to account for the fragile nature of many saline sites, the principles from non-saline perennial pastures can be applied directly to saltland situations. The general rules for grazing perennial grasses, modified for saltland situations include:

  • Depending on soil type grazing over winter may be minimal due to both the relatively slow growth of phalaris and tall fescue and to the fact that saline sites will often be waterlogged during winter and therefore highly susceptible to pugging damage;
  • Rotational grazing is better for the production and persistence of these temperate grasses than continuous stocking, and should be considered mandatory for saline sites. Often, these saline sites will be providing the only green material available over summer, so under continuous stocking, the grazing pressure can be extreme and the perennial grasses will soon get eaten out;
  • Because there are usually environmental and amenity benefits being sought from saltland pastures, the grazing management should be slightly more conservative than for similar pastures on non-saline land. Both phalaris and tall fescue can tolerate hard grazing - but many saline sites are too fragile to stand up to such heavy grazing pressure without pugging damage or erosion risk. In general, the rests between grazing should be longer than for conventional pastures and more ‘residual’ pasture should be left behind when the stock are removed to ensure rapid regeneration and sufficient groundcover to minimise evaporation from the soil surface;
  • To encourage persistence, these perennial grasses should be allowed to flower and set seed at least every second year, slightly more frequently than is recommended on non-saline sites;
  • The MLA publication Towards Sustainable Grazing – the Professional Producers Guide and the on-line sheep industry package Making More from Sheep up-to-date information about grazing management of these perennial grass-based pastures.

Animal nutrition issues

Phalaris and tall fescue have been extensively selected to be suitability for animal grazing. They are productive, nutritious and can provide extended grazing for much of the year if the moisture conditions are suitable. There have been many studies of their nutritional value. Key conclusions include:

  • There are no special nutritional problems associated with grazing these perennial grasses when they are growing on saltland. They only survive if the salinity levels in the soil are low, and they do not accumulate salt in the leaves;
  • As with all grasses, forage quality (both protein content and digestibility) decreases with the age of the plant material. A balance is required as long rests between grazings are best for the persistence of the plants, but give lower feed quality, while short rests between grazings give higher feed quality (good for the animals) but can reduce the persistence of the plants. On saltland, the primary concern is often maintaining groundcover and pasture persistence, so less frequent grazing with slightly lower forage quality is usually the right balance;
  • Forage quantity and quality will generally be improved by the use of fertiliser and/or by the inclusion of companion legumes so management and fertiliser strategies should focus on promoting good legume production;
  • Under certain conditions, both phalaris and tall fescue can be poisonous to livestock, especially sheep:
    • Phalaris poisoning generally occurs in autumn or early winter and can come in two forms; sudden death syndrome and staggers. Sudden death syndrome tends to be associated with hungry animals being put onto short, actively growing phalaris shoots that may have been stressed with lack of water or by frosts – deaths usually occur within 48 hours of introduction to the pasture. There is no cure and the animals should be removed from the pasture. Phalaris staggers are caused by the ingestion of alkaloids found in green phalaris shoots – stock may be grazing this pasture for at least a couple of weeks before symptoms occur. Stock can appear quite normal, then break down and stagger or throw themselves on the ground and convulse when put under pressure such as mustering. Due to the damage to the spinal chord that is caused by the condition, animals never recover. Phalaris staggers can be prevented with cobalt supplements, such as cobalt bullets administered to the animals or cobalt sprayed on pasture. Stock unused to grazing phalaris are more susceptible to both forms of toxicity and should be dosed with cobalt prior to introduction to phalaris pastures.
    • Tall fescue often has an endophyte fungus living within the plant. This fungus improves the persistence of the plants, but under certain conditions the endophyte can produce alkaloids that are toxic to livestock, causing summer ill thrift and lameness. Modern cultivars have been infused with new strains of the fungus that protect the plants from insect attack but do not produce toxic alkaloids.

These nutritional disorders are unlikely to occur on saltland pastures if there is a wide array of different forage plants, so that animals do not get to ingest a single pasture type.


Integration into a farming system

There are no specific issues associated with integrating saltland pastures based on phalaris and/or tall fescue into farming systems in southern Australia. It is likely that on most farms where saltland reclamation uses these temperate perennial grasses as part of the seeding mix, the individual species will already be in use on other, non-saline parts of the farm. This is much more the case in the eastern states than in Western Australia, where perennial pasture grasses have only recently become accepted farmer practice.

In addition, these shotgun mixtures are predominantly used in the higher rainfall zones of Victoria and NSW where saline patches tend to be numerous but small. On most farms, these saltland pastures will not produce sufficient forage in total to require any special planning to integrate them into the whole farm feed supply. However, saltland pastures need to be rotationally grazed even if continuous or set stocking is the normal practice on the rest of the farm.