My Grandfather always told me that “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.” It has been a life lesson that has withstood the test of time, at least until this summer’s record breaking drought hit us.
“Have I stepped onto a different planet?” That was my initial thought after looking across neighbor Byron Baker’s Osage County field of bright green native eastern gamagrass in late July. It is a whole lot different than what Byron and I are seeing in our neighbor’s burnt up fescue and brome pastures across the rest of mid-Missouri. About 10% 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.
Eastern gamagrass is a native warm-season grass that once was a staple of the native prairies that covered more than 15 million acres of Missouri. It can still be found in remnant prairies or roadsides and other idle areas. Once called the candy grass by early settlers, it must be managed to prevent livestock from grazing it out of a planting.
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 ten 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 that we grow here in Missouri.
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.
Studies have indicated that about 20-30% warm-season forages may be an appropriate level. Consider that 3 – 4 of the 9 – 10 grazing months we have in Missouri occur during the hot 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.
Native grasses are attractive to wildlife species, because they evolved with it over the last 10,000 years. These grasses are especially important this year because the insects so important to broods of birds, whether they be quail, turkey or meadowlark, are only found in any number where there is still green vegetation. In my neighborhood, the only green and the highest abundance of insects are fields of native grass.
Programs through your local Soil and Water Conservation District, USDA and the Department of Conservation can help defray much of the expenses of converting portions of your pastures or hayland to native grasses.
Go to the MDC YouTube page for videos which provide basic instructions for establishing native grasses.