Native grasses make a comeback

Native grasses make a comeback

Kidwell, Boyd

More farmers are finding that warm-season grasses have a place in summer pastures.

“Warm-season grasses are a lifesaver this summer, says Gary Dellinger. “Without my switchgrass, I’d be feeding up my hay supply or selling cows.”

Dellinger’s cattle farm near Denver, N.C., is a sad sight on this blazing hot summer morning. His fescue pastures are parched. By midmorning, his cattle are heading for shade. Because of switchgrass, at least they aren’t starving.

Without native warm-season grass, the situation would be bleak. But Dellinger has put a lot of time and effort into developing switchgrass pastures. His goal is to have 30% of his farm in switchgrass. The rest will be in traditional stands of fescue and clover.

“Anyone who has switchgrass knows that it holds up in hot, dry weather,” says North Carolina Extension forage specialist Jim Green.

When settlers moved across America, they used native warm-season grasses for forage. These bunchgrasses are still the top choice for wildlife habitat. Their upright growth make perfect areas for quail and rabbits.

Farmers have known for years that they need an alternative to cool-season grasses, such as fescue, for summer grazing. To take up the slack caused by fescue’s summer slump, many producers plant expensive annual crops of millet or sorghum hybrids.

FIlLING A NICHE But the ideal situation is to have a nutritious perennial summer forage ready to kick in when fescue falters. Switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, indiangrass and eastern gama grass are warm-season grasses that fill that niche.

The problem is getting these native grasses up and growing in dense stands that beat weed competition. The seed is expensive. At 8 to 10 pounds of seed per acre and $10 to $12 per pound, stand failures are costly.

The first step to preventing failure is ordering native warm-season grass seed by Pure Live Seed Specifications. In this way, you buy according to germination percentage.

Warm-season grass seeds have other unique characteristics. Switchgrass seed should go through a wet-chill process. Bluestem seed is light and fluffy, so precise placement is difficult.

When possible, the best method for bluestem is to work up a smooth seedbed, cultipack, plant and cultipack again. It’s critical to plant the seed no deeper than 1/4 inch.

But pastureland is often too steep, rocky or stumpy for tillage. The best alternative is to kill the existing vegetation with herbicides and no-till drill warm-season grass seed. Use a grain planter for eastern gama grass.

Unfortunately, most no-till drills require adaptation for planting fluffy bluestem seed. Local Natural Resources Conservation Service offices and soil conservation districts can usually help locate specially adapted notill drills.

Some states also have cost-share programs to help farmers convert fescue fields to native warm-season grasses, which benefit wildlife. Your local NRCS, wildlife conservation officer or a Quail Unlimited member should be able to provide information on these cost-share programs.

“I considered switchgrass and bluestem,” says Dellinger. “I chose switchgrass because it’s the best for quail.”

Copyright Southern Progress Corporation Feb 1999

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