Nathan Rice hosted a field day this summer in Clinton County on the challenges and benefits of native warm season grasses.

Warm season grass challenges and benefits to grazing

By Matt Reese

Those who graze livestock all understand the “summer slump” where Ohio’s cool season pastures decrease in productivity in the often hot, dry days of July and August. This slump has significant implications when maximizing pasture through management.

Nathan Rice raises grain and cattle on his Clinton County farm and knows the summer slump all too well on the 14 acres of pasture for his small cow/calf freezer beef operation. He also works for the Nnatural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and has learned the benefits of alternative grazing options. To help address the significant costs he has seen associated with the summer slump for his cool season pastures, Rice has been working to establish some native warm season grasses, including species like big bluestem, little bluestem and Indiangrass. 

“I was interested in using native warm season grasses after learning about them through my work with NRCS. They really have a good ability to fit in a grazing system by addressing the summer slump. When our cool season grass pastures are slowing down in the heat of summer, these grasses are really taking off. They are deep rooted and drought tolerant. They provide growing forage during the heat of the summer when our other pastures are not growing much,” Rice said. “This year we grazed them a little lighter just because we are still in the establishment process. In a normal year after they are well established, we expect to be able to do most of our grazing from late June until early- to mid-August on those native to warm season grasses. That takes us off of the fescue pasture and allows it to rest. It extends our grazing season through the year by moving off of those pastures in the summer. We buy all of our hay and that is our largest expense. We have been able to extend the grazing season, which has been great for our bottom line because we can reduce our hay purchases.” 

Research has shown there are similar weight gains for cattle on warm season and cool season grass pasture as well. While there are plenty of grazing benefits to stands of native warm season grasses in the summer months, there are significant challenges in getting them established. 

“Really having a plan going into it is important. Each farm is a little different. You need to use the right species to match your farm and your soils. It starts the year before the seeding. You have to control the existing vegetation the fall before you seed. You should then spray it a second time in the spring before planting,” Rice said. “The seed is light and fluffy and you need a special no-till drill. There are native warm season grass drills for that. You could also do a conventional seeding where you work it and broadcast it and maybe cultipack it in. The important thing is not getting it seeded too deep and control the competing weeds through the summer to make sure it has the space and sunlight to compete and get established. These native grasses are not fully mature until they are 3 years old. It does take some time and commitment to get them established. The trick is controlling the weeds and spraying in a timely fashion.”

Christine Gelley, Ohio State University Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources educator in Noble County, pointed out the need for significant patience in the pursuit of a solid stand of native warm season grasses in a recent article. 

“The benefits of establishing a native warm-season grass stand come hand in hand with the challenges. The greatest of these challenges is simply being patient for the seed to germinate and the plants to grow. A common cause of seeding failures is the land manager’s anxiety and inclination to change courses in the first few years after seeding a prairie mix,” Gelley said. “In order to prepare for establishment and follow through with maintenance, the forage manager has to prepare a completely different strategy from the typical cool-season perennial plan.” 

This strategy includes:

• Preparing the site before seeding; 

• Excluding the area from harvest for an extended period of time; 

• Properly treating for weeds; 

• Proper fertility; 

• A plan for proper harvest.

With warm season grasses, all of these factors are slightly different from cool season grasses because of the biological differences between plants native to the Great Plains and the imported forages commonly grown in Ohio pastures that are actually native to the European grassland.

“Even when everything goes according to plan, the early results of planting natives like big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, and eastern gamagrass can be disappointing early on, but with patience, time, and weed suppression, the labor exerted will yield the full reward of these plants’ potential. Warm-season natives are high yielding and persistent during the time that cool-season grass growth declines in the summer,” Gelley said. “The primary concern of seedling native prairie grasses in year 1 is to establish a strong root system and then develop tillers above ground. The bunch type growth habit of these plants leads to patchy looking rows with open ground in between where annual and perennial weeds can encroach before tiller development takes off. Weed control in year 1 and 2 are critical to prevent competition for nutrients and sunlight. Tolerance to herbicides varies by grass type and should be considered before application.”

It is also important to consider the mix of plants in the stand. 

“One of the greatest benefits of the prairie ecosystem is the immense diversity of plants, animals, and insects that reside in the grassland. Combining native grasses, legumes, and forbs becomes complicated when managed as an agronomic crop. Depending on the intensity of the weed pressure on the site, it may be best to wait to introduce broadleaf plants (legumes and forbs) by interseeding in year 3 of establishment. This allows two seasons of broadleaf weed control before diversifying the pasture mix and significantly limiting weed control options,” she said. “Many producers wonder if warm-season and cool-season grasses can successfully be grown in the same field. This practice is not advised for Ohio. There is not a good way to maximize growth for both types in the same space. One or the other will suffer when attempting to harvest for best yield or best quality. In mixed systems the ideal times for harvest, whether by grazing or for hay, do not coincide for both cool-season and warm-season plants.

“If cool-season forages are interseeded into warm-season forages, they will likely only last 1 to 2 years under grazing and in hay systems the warm-season forages would likely struggle to develop good root systems because of competition with the cool-seasons. Due to the physiological differences in plant growth, the best way to manage warm-seasons and cool-seasons on the same farm is in separate pastures.”

Native warm season grasses are also valuable for their role in habitat for native wildlife, including bobwhite quail. Because of this, there are significant program dollars available for helping to establish pastures. 

“The EQIP program is available for assistance with this. There are some special initiatives because these native grasses are great habitat for the northern bobwhite quail,” Rice said. “There are some additional resources available to help do this for that purpose.”

Private landowners and producers can apply for funding through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Interested landowners in the selected townships are encouraged to contact their local NRCS service center (Nick Schell, nick.schell@usda.gov, 614-255-2490), ODNR private lands biologist (John Kaiser john.kaiser@dnr.ohio.gov, 937-203-7511) or Pheasants Forever biologist (Cody Grasser, cgrasser@pheasantsforever.org, 419-551-3875) to learn more.  

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