My grandfather often told me that “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence,” and this advice served me well, until this summer’s record breaking drought hit us.
When I saw Ben Dowler’s lush, green, native warm season grass field in Shannon County this summer, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the deep-fried appearance of the fescue hay field across the fence. Ben had planted this field in 2009 and planted another field to natives in April 2012.
Ben called me in July and said, “Mike, you’ve got to get over here and see this.” When I asked him what was wrong, he told me, “It’s not what’s wrong, Mike, it’s the fact that the native grass field I planted back in April is the only, I mean the only, green field on the farm.”
Last summer proved the drought-resistant nature of native grasses. Ben plans to plant more next spring.
On another property in Osage County, Byron Baker saw similar results with his field of eastern gamagrass. It looked a whole lot different than his neighbor’s burned-up fescue and the brome pastures across the rest of mid-Missouri.
About 10 percent of Byron’s cattle farm is planted to eastern gamagrass, and he wishes he had more of it this summer. He has 44 head of heifers on this little oasis that has already been hayed once this summer. He had “no idea of the potential” of his 4-year-old planting until the spigot was turned off on the spring and summer rains. Byron plans to convert another 40 acres of fescue to this drought-resistant grass.
Throughout Missouri, the 2012 drought forced all introduced grasses such as tall fescue and Bermuda grass into dormancy. However, native grasses, especially those that were hayed or grazed earlier in the season, continued growing throughout the summer.
If you would like to improve drought tolerance on your own property:
Make Drought Tolerant Species a Priority
Native grasses, such as big bluestem, have been documented to grow roots to depths of 10 feet or more where bedrock is not limiting. Switchgrass, another native, produces almost four times the root biomass as tall fescue within the first year after planting. Over 10 years, studies have shown that switchgrass will produce about 5 tons per acre of root mass within the first 12 inches of the soil horizon. Such root systems, common to all of these tall growing natives, make these the most drought-tolerant forage grasses grown in Missouri.
Natives Produce Quality Summer Forage
Recent research at the University of Tennessee has demonstrated that cattle do well on these grasses during summer months, commonly posting gains of between 1.5 and 2.0 pounds per day on steers. Bred heifers typically gain between 1.0 and 1.5 pounds daily on these grasses. Blends of big bluestem and indiangrass provide better daily gains, but switchgrass and gamagrass can support heavier stocking rates.
How Much Summer Forage is Enough?
Studies have indicated that about 30 percent warm-season forages may be an appropriate level—perhaps more farther south and less farther north. Consider that 30 to 40 percent of the grazing months we have in Missouri occur during the hottest part of the year. Given the efficiency of native grasses, virtually all dedicated hay ground could be in these grasses. Regardless of the proper ratio, start small and evaluate your need for more summer grasses as you go.
Programs through your local Department of Conservation, Soil and Water Conservation District, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service can help defray some of the expenses of converting portions of your pastures or hayland to native grasses.
Visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZQXFn6Sq3o for videos that provide basic instructions on establishing native grasses. If you would prefer to receive a DVD with these instructions, please contact the Department of Conservation at 573-522-4115, extension 3251, and ask for the Private Land Care DVD. Plant native grasses—so your side of the fence will always be greener