With a reputation for being difficult to establish, native warm season grasses are often overlooked, but new research and tools make them worth a second glance.
Tim Schnakenberg, field specialist in agronomy with University of Missouri Extension, made a case for introducing these grasses to cattle operations in Missouri during this year’s virtual field day.
“We have new tools today,” Schnakenberg said. “We have a little better knowledge on how to get them established, and we have weed control options that help us.”
Benefits of Native Grasses
Schnakenberg said the greatest benefit of planting native warm season grasses is its ability to compliment the common practices operations currently have in place.
“We have a lot of fescue across the state of Missouri,” Schnakenberg said. “Fescue has a definite place in the cattle industry, but there’s some compliments that we need to have in order to get through that summer slump.”
Popular native warm season grasses, such as Switchgrass, Big Bluestem and Indiangrass, can maintain forage production throughout key summer months, when cool season grasses are less abundant.
The use of native warm season grasses also helps tackle issues that arise from the limited harvest period of fescue in May.
“Fescue needs to be harvested in about a two week period in May and we can’t physically get it all done,” Schnakenberg said. “Having a warm season grass option, whatever it may be, gives us a lot more flexibility to get it done earlier.”
Native warm season grasses can also be a highly palatable option when harvested timely, and can dilute or eliminate the endophyte toxin found due to fescue utilization.
“We have a lot of endophyte issues in Missouri with all the fescue that we grow,” Schnakenberg said. “If we can have 20 to 25 percent of our farm in a warm season grass during the summer months, it gives us options and gets cattle off those pastures.”
Other benefits to introducing native warm season grasses to cattle operations include their efficient use of fertilizers, and the ability to provide cover to wildlife.
Challenges of Native Grasses
Schnakenberg was honest about the challenges that come with establishing a native warm season grass pasture.
The biggest concern is the cost involved. The price per acre to establish a warm season pasture is substantial when compared to more common grasses such as Crabgrass or Caucasian Bluestem. Schnakenberg argued the cost can be worth the benefits in the long run.
“You have to look at the long term benefits and realize that if you can produce more tonnage and reduce endophyte issues on the farm, this can pay off over time,” he said.
Native warm season grasses require a higher level of management and can be timely and difficult to establish, often taking a year or longer to establish itself. Schnakenberg warned they are not necessarily the right choice for every producer, especially if they commonly overgraze pastures.
“You have to be very patient person sometimes because it’s known to have a slow and sometimes difficult establishment,” Schnakenberg explained.
Native warm season grasses are often thought to follow a three-year “sleep, creep and leap” pattern. While Schnakenberg agreed for some species, he’s also seen pastures doing well in their second year.
Establishing Native Grass Pastures
One challenge in establishing some native warm season grasses, such as Bluestem and Indiangrass, is the chaffy, hairy seed, making it difficult for them to flow through drills or broadcast seeders. Schnakenberg recommended using debearded seeds or specialized drills to improve seed movement. In some cases, a carrier seed may also be useful.
There are several options for how and when native warm season grasses should be planted. Both dormant seeding and preseason seeding have seen success, and with the right tools no-till and conventional practices are possible. The most important factor to consider is how deep the seed is being planted.
“The last thing we want to do is plant too deep,” Schnakenberg said. “We have a much better success rate with seed on top of the ground than if it gets planted too deep.”
Weed control is another important factor to consider when attempting to establish native warm season grasses. Products like Plateau and Panoramic can be used on a variety of species, while continual mowing can be used if herbicides are not an option.
As researchers find new methods to more easily establish warm season native grasses, the flexibility and options they provide make them a worthy potential addition to Missouri operations.