Forage grasses

There are a number of different species of forage grasses of importance in New Zealand pastoral systems today.  Of these, ryegrass is perhaps the most widely known and arguably the most important.  There are however a number of other species that are all useful in certain areas or under specific environmental conditions. 

Ryegrass - The most common way to sub-classify ryegrass is into categories determined by persistence.


Throughout New Zealand, perennial ryegrass is the grass of choice for permanent pastures. It establishes rapidly, yields well, tolerates a range of management practices, and has high nutritive value. It is also compatible with white clover offering an excellent all-round pasture for all grazing systems.

Long rotation

Long rotation ryegrasses generally fall between perennial and short rotation ryegrass in growth and persistence. But varieties vary widely. Some are more similar to short rotation ryegrass and some to perennial ryegrass.

Short rotation

Short rotation ryegrasses (previously known as ‘hybrid ryegrasses’) are generally produced by plant breeders crossing annual or Italian ryegrass with perennial ryegrass. Short rotation ryegrasses tend to fall between Italian and perennial ryegrasses in growth and persistence.

Italian / Annual

Italian ryegrass and annual ryegrass are discussed together as they are often used for the same purpose. Most commonly they are sown for a high quality short-term winter crop, to provide multiple grazings in winter and spring. Italian ryegrass is more persistent and can be sown for a 3-4 year pasture in summer mild areas (e.g. Southland) or under irrigation. However, in summer dry areas it generally persists 9 months to 2 years. Annual ryegrass is generally used for a 6 - 8 month winter crop prior to sowing a summer crop.


Brome grasses are a perennial species suited to free draining soils of moderate to high fertility, particularly in lower rainfall areas. They do not persist as well on poorly drained soils.


Cocksfoot is a very persistent perennial grass that tolerates moisture stress, moderate soil fertility, insect attack and continual set stocking.

Tall fescue

Tall fescue is a perennial grass more tolerant of hot summer, poorly drained and saline conditions than perennial ryegrass. In New Zealand it is mainly sown in dry areas for its summer growth and good clover content.


A late flowering perennial grass suited to summer wet areas, particularly on heavy soils. It persists poorly in dry areas. Timothy is mainly sown as a minor component of permanent pasture at 1-2 kg/ha. It has high feed value and performs best under lax grazing. It has a summer growth peak with little winter or early spring production.

There are a number of commercially available cultivars within each of the classifications above.  Within each classification the cultivars vary in terms of heading date (maturity/appearance of the seed head), growth habit (e.g. prostrate/erect), leaf size, tiller density and total and seasonal growth (e.g. some cultivars have very lush, early spring growth compared to others).  All of these parameters can be measured and form the basis of comparison between cultivars when measured under standardised trial protocols.

The differences between the cultivars and the species are very important when recommending a seed mix.  The requirements for a paddock under irrigation on a dairy farm on the plains are very different to those required for a summer dry, dryland paddock in the hill country. Equally, stock preferences are very important: often the physical characteristics of grasses (and other forage plants) are important to ensure persistence and productivity over the lifetime of the sward and the paddock.

The on-farm team of Technical Field Officers are able to advise on all aspects of grass agronomy and tailor this knowledge to that required on farm, and can make individual paddock recommendations.

For more information or to contact Farmlands Seed, please call 0800 200 600 or email: