To Grass Species

Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea)

Plant Species
From Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook *
S. Smoliak, R.L. Ditterline, J.D. Scheetz, L.K. Holzworth, J.R. Sims, L.E. Wiesner, D.E. Baldridge, and G.L. Tibke

Tall fescue is a long-lived, perennial bunchgrass introduced from Europe prior to 1900. It is adapted for use in pastures, hay and general-purpose turf, and erosion control throughout humid parts of northern United States and under irrigation in arid regions. It is adapted in southern states, but of limited value in the southern Coastal Plains. This species was not readily used until improved cultivars were developed in Oregon (`Alta') and Kentucky (KY-31).


Tall fescue is a deep-rooted, tufted, cool-season grass attaining heights varying from 1 1/2 to 6 feet tall. Although it is considered a bunchgrass, the short, underground stems will develop even sod with mowing and heavy grazing. The roots are tough and coarse, normally penetrating to a depth of at least 5 feet. It has numerous shiny, dark green, deeply-ribbed leaves. The predominantly basal leaves are relatively coarse when allowed to reach full development and maturity. The branched panicle-type heads are 4 to 12 inches long, suspended on long, rigid culms of 3 to 5 feet long. The seeds are borne three to five in a spikelet, and have a dark appearance because of a slight purple tinge on both the glumes and the caryopsis.


This grass is adapted to a wide range of climatic and soil conditions. Although best adapted to a cool climate and wet, heavy soils, it will thrive on most other sites, except on light, sandy soils. It will tolerate poorly-drained conditions, and will survive in standing water for long periods of time during the winter when it is semidormant. Long submergence during its peak summer growth may be injurious. Tall fescue will tolerate moderate saline-alkaline concentrations when soil moisture conditions are favorable, and will also thrive on quite acid soils. Good fertility levels must be maintained for seed production and optimum forage production. A minimum of 15 inches annual precipitation is required to maintain this plant under dryland conditions.

The toughness of this grass makes it an ideal cover for athletic fields and playgrounds, as well as in waterways and eroding gullies where a long-lived, tenacious, deep-rooted grass is needed. The extensive, deep root system helps to open up heavy soils and add organic matter. Tall fescue is also useful for grass roadways, waterways, and as a "trap" filter downslope from feedlots and manure storage sites.


Tall fescue may not be adequately winterhardy in some areas of northern Montana and Canada where snow cover is not consistent through winter. Seedlings are slow to develop, requiring at least one full growing season to establish. Cattle may develop an ailment known commonly as "fescue foot" while grazing tall fescue infected with a fungal endophyte, however this is quite infrequent in Montana.

Use for Hay

The predominantly clumpy basal leaves limit the use of this species as hay. However, with proper fertilization, this grass will produce good hay, especially when grown in a grass-legume mixture. The competitive ability in mixtures is generally good. For best quality, the hay should be harvested at the first sign of heading. Regrowth after hay harvest provides good pasture. Tall fescue is capable of producing 2 to 4 tons per acre of high-quality hay.

Use for Pasture

Tall fescue is best suited for irrigated and subirrigated pasture, responding well to fertilization and irrigation. This grass maintains good production throughout the season. It is palatable to livestock when leaves are young and succulent, but becomes coarse and unpalatable upon maturing. The palatability and nutritive value of tall fescue are improved when grown with a legume. Although the nutritive value of this grass is good, cattle grazing pure stands may occasionally require nutritional supplements. The tough basal leaves and extensive root system will withstand trampling and relatively heavy grazing pressure. Grazing of stubble following seed harvest yields forage with a crude protein content of about 3.8. Late fall grazing of seed production fields could reduce seed yields the following year.

Seed Production

Seed yields under irrigation are 500 pounds per acre or better, with occasional yields as high as 1,000 pounds per acre. On dryland sites receiving at least 16 inches annual precipitation, yields of 100 to 200 pounds per acre can be expected. Seed is ready to harvest during the first two weeks of July. Tall fescue seed is ready to harvest if a few seeds drop when the seed head is pulled gently between the thumb and forefinger. Ripe seed shatters easily. Harvesting can be done by direct harvesting or by swathing and combining from the windrow, the latter being the preferred method. The seed easily threshes out, requiring no additional treatment prior to cleaning. Seed production stands of tall fescue are productive for up to five years, the first two being the best.

* The Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook (EB69) is no longer in print, but is available for viewing in
Montana County Extension Service and National Resource Conservation Service Offices.