Professor celebrates benefits of native grass
Grasses that grew in the Mid-South and Mid-Atlantic areas of what is now the United States before humans arrived are being touted as components of modern forage systems.
Dr. Pat Keyser, a University of Tennessee professor and director of the Center for Native Grasslands Management, told participants in the 2019 Virginia Forage and Grassland Winter Conference about the potential these native warm-season grasses offer livestock producers.
Keyser is co-author of several UT publications that explain what native warm seasons are and how they can be used as alternatives to the cool-season grass systems, especially those with fescue, that often predominate modern cattle farm pastures.
Keyser took aim at fescue as key to the problems in current forage systems in these regions.
“Native warm-season grasses were grazed by buffalo and elk for thousands of years and then during the first two centuries of European settlement, by free-ranging domestic livestock,” Keyser and his colleagues wrote in an article titled “Warm Season Grasses for Mid-South Forage Production.” “They are naturally well-adapted to the region’s soils, climate and pests (insects and diseases).”
Proponents of the tall-growing bunch grasses say they help fill the gap in the hot summer months when cool-season grasses go dormant. While there are a number of the native warm-season grasses, Keyser discussed only five at the conferences: big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass and eastern gamagrass.
The advantages Keyser cited in his talks are strong performance, high yields, flexible management, exceptional drought resistance and long stand life. The perennials are also cost effective, he noted, as stands last a long time. They are known to be non-invasive and have deep root systems that seek moisture and contribute to soil health. They have impressive hay yields as well.
But, Keyser said, “every forage has weaknesses.”
He listed three challenges for these forages: difficulty to establish; difficulty to manage; and a short growing season.
Small seeds and slow germination are part of the difficulty in establishment, he said. Germination can take three to four weeks. Low seed vigor is another.
He explained that these perennial natives tend to develop their root systems during the first two years rather than developing heavy thatch. Their yield increases after that.
“During the second growing season,” he wrote in a 2013 article in Progressive Forager Grower, “native grasses continue to establish their deep (up to 10 feet) root systems. Use of second-year stands for forage production is fine, but should be limited. A single hay cutting in early summer or about 60 or so grazing days should be fine as long as adequate time for resting is provided during late summer.”
Keyser outlined factors that need to be considered when planting native grass forages. They include attention to detail; advanced competition control; seedbed preparation; planting depth; follow-up weed control; and planting dates.
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