It’s time to add warm season grasses to your farm

It’s time to add warm season grasses to your farm

by Julie Harker

Drought in Missouri has affected cool-season grasses, resulting in decreased forage for cattle and other livestock.

“Warm-season native grasses are the ideal summer forage while cool-season grasses decline in production due to heat, especially in drought conditions,” says Rusty Lee, an agronomist at the University of Missouri.

He tells me that now is a teachable moment. While they take a year to establish, warm-season grasses can be lightly grazed in the second year – and fully grazed in the third year and beyond.

“When I ask them, producers say they want high forage yields, which warm-season grasses provide in large quantities,” he says. “They want to grow forage without the risk of toxins, such as fescue poisoning in cattle. They want long-term life, without having to replant every three to five years. They want animal performance, and they want a cost-effective system. Warm-season grasses define every These boxes.

Warm-season grasses don’t need to be a wholesale replacement for cool-season grasses in pastures, but Lee encourages producers to try them for many benefits. Those who have, he adds, have increased acres of warm-season grass on their farms.

Plan ahead

Warm-season grasses get a bad reputation because they take one to two years to grow, Lee says.

He recommends setting aside one year and, depending on your pasture, dormant winter seeding or spring seeding.

“Adopt the use of herbicides to help control old grass in the cool season,” Lee notes. “Warm-season grasses are very strong and resilient, but the roots grow first, and weeds tend to shade them out. The seedlings are weak at first. The goal is to leave the pasture alone for the first year after planting and not overgraze it.”

To prepare:

  • Graze cool-season grasses this fall.

  • Spray with glyphosate herbicide before it goes dormant — usually in October.

  • Dig the seeds in the spring.

  • Expect a four-week window for them to appear. Before weeds emerge, they must be controlled with additional glyphosate.

Lee recommends planting a mix of Indian grass, big blue, and a little bluegrass—heavier on the big blue. “These three species have the ability to tolerate additional herbicides. imazapic, that when the tank is mixed with a spring application of glyphosate it gives some control of the remaining weeds.

Your seeds and effort are valuable, so take the time to understand drill settings for planting depths and calibrate your seeding rate to ensure a successful stand.

Weed control, seeding depth and seeding rate are the three most common factors that determine success or failure, Lee says.

The use of warm-season grasses depends on the type. They will be at their peak in late May to early September, then go dormant after the winter freeze. Note that growers can also broadcast seed during winter dormancy or not dig it.

Economics of warm season grasses

When planting warm-season grasses in the spring, remember to make a second application of glyphosate after greening out the cool-season grasses, then dig up the warm-season grasses in late April to early May.

“Keep in mind that WSG seed is expensive — up to $300 an acre,” Lee says. Grass seed availability varies in the warm season as demand consumes supply. “So, get your seed order in now,” Lee adds.

He assures me that there is an institutional cost to not grazing during the first year, but production in subsequent years will more than offset it.

Lee recommends testing the soil now in time for fall to determine the fertility adjustments needed. If lime additions are necessary, an application this fall will match well with seeding the following spring.

Cost share available

There are several cost-sharing programs available through the Missouri Department of Conservation, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Every agency’s programs are different, and some can fit producers’ needs better than others,” says Rachel Hopkins, business specialist at MU Extension ag. “Contact your local NRCS-SWCD office to learn more about local forage cost-sharing programs. For programs offered by MDC, contact your local private land conservation officer. Before choosing a specific program, producers should evaluate offerings to find the program that best suits their needs better.

Each program has pros and cons. “Farmers can think of this as an opportunity to build flexibility into their forage program,” Hopkins adds. “Warm-season native forages grow well during peak summer heat. Many people will renovate pastures at great cost. Cost-share programs incentivize farmers to try something new in their operations.”

Harker is a news strategist at the University of Missouri. She writes from Columbia, MO.

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