This Missourian debunks the myths of native grass
Many states lit up the U.S. Drought Monitor a shade of yellow, orange, or red last year, especially in parts of the Midwest, the High Plains, and the South. Despite some easing of late-season rainfall, the lasting effects of this dry spell can be visualized through damaged pastures and echoed off the walls of empty hay barns.
In some areas, setting aside a portion of land for native warm-season grasses can provide farmers with greater flexibility in feeding livestock. These drought-tolerant species can be an asset to hay production and grazing rotations when cool-season forages are dormant in summer; However, many growers may wonder whether warm-season native grasses are suitable for their work.
At the Missouri Livestock Symposium held earlier this month in Kirksville, Missouri, Jimmy Kurtz shared his insights gained from growing warm-season native grasses on his farm. Species such as turfgrass, Indian grass and big bluegrass make up about 50 of the 215 total grazing acres at the cow-calf operation he runs with his father near West Plains, Missouri.
Kurtz, the state’s grasslands specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, sees warm-season native grasses as tools to mitigate the negative effects drought can have on forage production and, in turn, livestock performance. Speaking from his personal and professional experience, he debunks—and confirms—some of the myths surrounding these species.
Myth 1 – Longevity is limited
The first myth Kurtz addressed was that warm-season native grasses are not persistent. He explained that the longevity of native grasslands depends largely on grazing practices, and as with most other forages, frequent overgrazing will restrict plant establishment.
Grazing too late in the season can weaken the native grass system as well. Kurtz said he received several phone calls from producers last summer about grazing warm-season native grasses in the fall since dry conditions limited cool-season grass growth. Although this could have reduced feed shortages caused by drought, it would not have been worth it in the long run.
“Whatever you do in the fall, you lose next spring,” Kurtz said. He also stated that forage quality declines rapidly when native warm-season grasses go dormant, so animals will not be able to meet their nutritional needs.
Myth 2 – Slow establishment
Lost production during establishment is another concern producers can have regarding warm-season native grasses. Instead of disproving this myth, Kurtz confirmed it. Species such as switchgrass, Indian grass, little bluegrass, and big bluegrass are slow to reproduce, so it is critical to have other feed available for livestock.
“I’m not going to go overboard and tell you we’re going to have huge volumes of production in the first year, because we’re not,” Kurtz asserted. He recommended planting warm-season annual forages, such as sorghum varieties, for summer grazing or hay production in the establishment year.
Myth 3 – Unsuccessful sowing
To clear up the previous myth, Kurtz shared that some producers question the composition of warm-season native turf in general. After experiencing several unsuccessful seedings, he said site preparation is the most important step to establishing, especially when it comes to dominating the competition.
“We have to make sure we get all the weeds and annuals out of the way,” Kurtz said. “Spray everything with herbicide, plant a temporary crop in the spring or fall, then apply herbicide before planting.”
A firm seedbed is also key to good establishment, which Kurtz said looks like a footprint in the soil no more than a quarter-inch deep. He also advised using a shallow seeding depth for native warm-season grasses. If no-till seeds, ensure 25% to 50% of seeds appear on the soil surface.
Myth 4 – Diversity over monocultures
A diverse forage platform can have many benefits, both agricultural and environmental. However, when it comes to warm-season native grasses, Kurtz said a monoculture is likely easier to establish and maintain than a collection of species.
“Monofarms are a little easier to manage, whereas diversified stands can be kind of difficult,” Kurtz said. “I do not discourage diverse positions; I’m just saying it can be tough. If I had never dealt with warm-season native forages, I would not have started with a diverse stand.
However, Kurtz recommended incorporating a legume component into warm-season native grasses to enhance forage quality and provide nitrogen to the stand. He supervised plantings of annual lespedeza in native species on his farm in southern Missouri about every five years, but he suggested planting trilobite seeds for birds’ feet in the northern reaches of the Show-Me State.
Myth 5 – The quality of feed is poor
The final myth presented by Kurtz was that warm-season native grasses are of poor forage quality. After conducting feed and fecal samples from cattle, he found that species such as big bluegrass, Indian grass and switchgrass contained sufficient levels of crude protein and energy to support cows through the summer with mineral supplements. These species can also be harvested for high-quality hay.
For example, Kurtz’s analysis showed that his great bluestem feed contained 13% crude protein (CP) and 70% digestible organic matter (DOM), which he said translates to an expected average daily gain of 2.9 pounds per day. . His Indian grass also had approximately 13% CP and had 70% DOM at the time of sampling in late July.
When Kurtz sampled his switchgrass, it contained 16% CP and 67% DOM; However, these values represent forage quality in late May when cool-season grasses were still productive. He noted that switchgrass matures relatively early in the growing season, so it can be difficult to utilize both types of forage in a short period of time.
Regardless of the forage species, switching animals from cool-season grasses to native warm-season grasses, and vice versa, does not have to be an instantaneous switch. Not only do cattle need to get used to the difference in palatability, they must also adapt to the effects that new feeds can have on rumen activity.
(tags for translation)Weeds