Reed Canarygrass

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Characteristics
  3. Use Low Alkaloid Varieties
  4. Establishment
  5. Timely Harvest Management
  6. Pasture
  7. Management!
  8. Related Links


There is growing interest in reed canarygrass for both forage mixtures and as pure stands in Ontario. Reed canarygrass is high yielding and widely adapted, with good tolerance to both poor drainage and drought conditions. Properly managed, reed canarygrass quality and palatability can be excellent. Once it heads however, course stems and leaves develop, rapidly reducing palatability and digestibility, so timely harvest management is critical.

The older reed canarygrass varieties and late harvest schedules used by our grandfathers are responsible for a reputation of poor palatability and animal performance. This is no longer necessarily the case. Glyphosate enables us to control this persistent species when rotating to other crops.


Reed canarygrass spreads by rhizomes and forms a solid sod. It is best known for its ability to tolerate poorly drained soils and prolonged flooding. Because of its deep-root system, reed canarygrass is more drought resistant than other grasses, and can provide high yields on well-drained or even droughty soils.

Reed canarygrass has excellent winterhardiness, persistence, disease resistance, and can tolerate low pH. Because it has a sod forming habit, and is not a bunch grass, it will fill in gaps in hay stands (unlike orchardgrass, ryegrass and timothy). Reed canarygrass responds well to adequate fertility, particularly nitrogen, and can be a useful tool in nutrient management. Pure stands respond well to split nitrogen applications, resulting in increased yield and protein.

Prior to the full head stage, feed quality, including crude protein and digestibility, is similar to other grasses at the same stage of maturity. Regrowth is excellent and occurs faster than most other grass species. Normally, regrowth will be leafy and result in stem elongation, but with no infloresence (seed heads).

Use Low Alkaloid Varieties

In the past, livestock have performed poorly on reed canarygrass pastures because it contained unpalatable alkaloids. Recommended reed canarygrass varieties are free of the tryptomine and carboline alkaloids, which cause scours and poor performance. Some varieties (Marathon, Palaton & Venture) are also lower in the gramine alkaloids that reduce palatability. Variety performance data is available at and in Table 1. The newer varieties are less aggressive and invasive than the older varieties. "Common" reed canarygrass seed should be considered high in alkaloids and should be avoided.

Table 1 - 2002 Ontario Forage Crop Variety Performance
Reed Canarygrass (% of Palaton)1
Yield (% of Prima)1

Heading Date

South North Guelph Kapuskasing
Quality Seeds Ltd.
Pickseed Canada Inc., Mapleseed
Speare Seeds

1 Average yield of Palaton, Southern Ontario trials 9.5 t/ha; in Northern Ontario trials 8.0 t/ha.
2 Varieties with significantly lower levels of gramine alkaloid. High levels of gramine alkaloid reduces palatability and intake.


Reed canarygrass is slower and more difficult to establish than other grasses. It is not very competitive in the year of seeding, but once established reed canarygrass is very aggressive. In legume mixtures, a strong reed canarygrass presence may not occur until the third year, but will eventually predominate. This slow establishment means reed canarygrass is not well suited to short, 3 year alfalfa mixture rotations, but it can work well in longer rotations. Seedling vigour is poor, so frost seeding, interseeding into established stands, and fall seeding are usually not recommended.

Seed is more expensive than most other grass species. Seeding is most successful with conventional tillage, but can work in no-till systems as well. A firm, well prepared, packed seedbed is important. Seed at a depth of ¼ - ½ inch. Seeding rates are usually 9 - 11 lbs/acre in a pure stand, or at least 4 - 6 lbs/acre if included with a legume. Weed control is important to minimize competition.

Timely Harvest Management

Once it heads, reed canarygrass develops course leaves and stems, with reduced palatability and digestibility. Heading of reed canarygrass occurs later than orchardgrass and bromegrass, but before timothy. First cut should be harvested at the boot stage for highest quality, or at the heading stage for optimum yield.


Reed canarygrass has traditionally been seeded on poorly drained pastures, where it is difficult to grow other species. Poor animal performance has resulted on wet pastures where animals could not graze until the grass was well past heading.

Reed canarygrass can be the basis of a productive, drought-resistant pasture if it can be rotationally grazed with rest periods to allow regrowth. Because of its deep-rooted nature, it can be used to provide grazing during the "summer slump" of other species.

Grazing should be timed to keep the plants vegetative. This is particularly important in May and June, when the rapid spring growth should be limited. Machine harvest if necessary. With low stocking rates, clipping may be required. Reed canarygrass does not tolerate close, continuous grazing, where the constant removal of growing points damages regrowth. Rotational grazing with a residual height of 4 inches will improve productivity.


Reed canarygrass does not necessarily fit every forage production system. However, when managed properly, reed canarygrass has the potential to be an excellent cool-season grass species for haylage, hay and pasture. Careful attention must be paid to timely harvest management, variety selection and establishment practices.

Related Links

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