Native warm-season grasses can add diversity, stainability and productivity 

The Ozarks is primarily fescue country, but as producers seek new ways to diversify their farms in a sustainable and productive manner, developing stands of native warm-season grasses is worth the time and investment.

Tim Schnakenberg, field specialist in agronomy with the University of Missouri Extension, and one of eight specialists with the NRCS Plus MU Grasslands Project, has a deep appreciation for native grasses and what they can bring to the pasture. 

“My interest has been native grasses for a long time,” he said. “They were here before fescue, and they are well adapted.” 

His work with the Grasslands Project includes six different demonstrations of Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem and Indiangrass on farms around the Ozarks, where he collaborates with producers to help establish and manage stands. 

The first step towards developing a successful stand of native warm-season grasses, Schnakenberg explained, is to cultivate a different management mindset. 

“You can’t treat these grasses like fescue,” he said. “They need different management to keep them in the stand, and they won’t tolerate the abuse that fescue will.” 

There is a rather substantial financial investment to buy seed, as well as a time investment. Grasses like Big and Little Bluestem and Indiangrass take time to develop, so patience is required. Producers will need to research their varieties and learn when to turn livestock in and how to cut hay from native stands. Planting these grasses will also require different types of equipment. The seed is light and fluffy, Schnakenberg explained, and a no-till drill must be adjusted for native seed. 

Mixing materials, such as corn chops or pelletized lime, in with the seed can help it flow more easily through a drill. Seed can also be broadcasted, provided there is adequate soil contact. Once the seed is in the ground, Schnakenberg said weed control is essential. He recommended a pre- and post-emergence application of the herbicide Imazapick. It can be used safely with Big and Little Bluestem, and Indiangrass. It is critical that producers not overgraze their stands once the management phase begins. Schnakenberg said a general rule is to not let these varieties be grazed below 8 inches, and native grasses generally do well in a management intensive grazing system.

With such different requirements and strategies than traditional fescue, producers might ask “is it worth it?” Fortunately, the pros tend to outweigh the cons when it comes to established native stands. One of the best things about native warm season grasses, Schnakenberg said, is their efficiency of using fertilizer and nutrients. This efficiency means fewer inputs are needed; extension experts generally recommend 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year – half of the amount often required for other forages. Native grasses also thrive in soils that other grasses will not, such as acidic soils. Wildlife are drawn to native grasses and adding these forages to the field can help create quail and other critter habitat. 

Established native warm season stands are highly productive for pasture and hay, and may also help reduce heat stress in cattle and help them keep weight on in summer months. Reagan Bluel, field specialist in dairy with MU Extension, explained warm-season grasses offer cows a forage with higher digestibility. Hot cows may go off feed, but warm-season grasses can help them utilize what they do eat more efficiently. 

The addition of these grasses will also reduce the amount of “hot” fescue a cow is eating, which has the potential to lessen the risk of heat stress. 

Yet another appealing aspect of native warm-season grass is drought resistant. These bunch grasses have a deep root system and are hardy in dry conditions. Schnakenberg noted during the 2018 drought, producers who had established native stands for hay were still able to harvest high tonnage.

To add a productive layer of diversity to the farm, Schnakenberg highly recommended that producers consider adding 20 to 30 percent of warm-season grasses, even if they are not necessarily native. The time, effort and investment can pay off. One participant in the Grasslands Project started out with a 10-acre plot of Big and Little Bluestem, and Indiangrass. He was so impressed with the results that he planted an additional 25-acres. If producers want to give going native a try, Schnakenberg recommended starting small (5 to 10 acres) and experimenting. 

“Ask questions before you do it,” he advised. 

Visiting with local agronomists and NRCS specialists can help get producers the answers and information they need for establishing successful native warm season stands.


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