Abstract Four intermediate-heading perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.) varieties, which in previous studies had been associated with high- or low-intake characteristics when swards containing them had been continuously stocked with sheep, were sown as monocultures. They were rotationally grazed, using 1-d paddocks, with core groups of four yearling Simmental × Holstein beef heifers in 2002 and 2003 and ingestive and ruminative behaviour, and sward factors, were measured. There were two diploid (Belramo and Glen) and one tetraploid (Rosalin) perennial ryegrass varieties and one tetraploid hybrid (Lolium × boucheanum Kunth) (AberExcel) variety. Intake rate (IR) was significantly higher in August 2003 for heifers grazing Glen than those grazing Belramo [27·5 vs. 20·6 g dry matter (DM) min−1; P = 0·019], but there were no significant differences between varieties in two other measurement periods. This is in contrast to previous results with sheep when IR were significantly higher for Glen than Belramo and for AberExcel than Rosalin. Total jaw movement rates during grazing were significantly higher for heifers on the tetraploid swards than those on the diploid swards (87·7 vs. 83·6 jaw movements min−1; P = 0·023) in September 2002. Ruminating time was significantly lower for heifers on the tetraploid swards than those on the diploid swards (453 vs. 519 min 24 h−1; P = 0·012) in July 2002. Digestibility of grass snips was significantly higher on the tetraploid than the diploid swards [697 vs. 680 g digestible organic matter (DOM) kg−1 DM; P = 0·042] in September 2003 and, within diploids, was significantly higher for Glen than Belramo (696 vs. 663 g DOM kg−1 DM; P = 0·014). There were significant differences in sheath tube and leaf lengths and in the population density of tillers between and within ploidies, which might have been expected to have influenced intake characteristics, but this was not generally found under rotational grazing with cattle. In order to separate the effects of defoliation interval from those of grazing style of the different ruminant species, it is suggested that grass variety evaluations using continuously stocked cattle swards are required.