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Going Native: Improve Carrying Capacity with Native Warm Season Grasses

Forage deficits cost money. Sometimes they even cost opportunity, forcing cattle sales when the market is not at its optimum, and hot, dry conditions have limited carrying capacity.

A renewable way to bridge the forage gap cool-season grasses can leave is through the establishment of native warm-season grass (NWSG) pastures for both grazing and haying. It's a trend Gary Bates says he's seeing across Mid-South cattle operations.

"We are primarily a cool-season grass state, about 90% of our pastures are tall fescue," says Bates, director and forage specialist at the Beef and Forage Center, University of Tennessee (UT) at Knoxville. "We have good production in the spring and in the fall, but we are limited during the summer. Warm-season grasses would get us more production during the June, July and August time periods."

In the Mid-South, NWSG generally means one of five species: big bluestem, little bluestem, eastern gamagrass, indiangrass and switchgrass. All are tall, deep-rooted perennials, drought tolerant and high yielding. They generally begin rapid growth in April, going semidormant in late August. All can produce excellent quality hay, often with higher yields than cool-season grasses.

Warm-Season Grasses Take Time

So what's the downside? Bates says the biggest challenge these grasses present is that they take about three years for full establishment. That means those areas planted to a NWSG won't provide any forage the first year, and only 50 to 75% of the eventual yield the second year.

"It's not till the third year that you see the full yield. Sometimes, it's a real challenge for a producer to take that land out of their normal rotation," Bates says.

But for those producers who make the commitment, the payout can be pretty good. Bates says studies of UT grazing steers on NWSG show weight gains at 2 pounds a day. And maintaining body condition on cows with these forages is not an issue. In addition, unlike some fescues, there are no issues with toxicity.

 Source: DTN/The Progressive Farmer