Consider Native Warm-Season Grasses to Complement Tall Fescue

By: Linda Geist, University of Missouri

Native warm-season grasses can yield more forage than traditional tall fescue, says Tim Schnakenberg, University of Missouri Extension agronomy specialist.

Fans of native-warm season grasses like to use big bluestem, switch grass, Indian grass and eastern gama grass for hay and pastures. The grasses also serve as a wildlife habitat. "These grasses are superior at minimizing fertilizer and lime expense, are highly palatable, and provide a large quantity of forage at needed times," says Schnakenberg.

Some producers say the cost of establishment outweighs benefits. They report that stands did not develop quickly, or at all. Some stands died out after a few years.

"Tall fescue is the dominant forage in Missouri, and it should be," Schnakenberg says. "We have an outstanding cow-calf industry because of tall fescue's palatability, durability, ease of establishment, and fall and winter grazing capability that can majorly offset the expense of feeding hay. However, we miss some huge benefits if we depend solely on fescue."

Missouri beef producers lose about $160 million yearly in production from the toxic endophyte in Kentucky 31 fescue, he says. Fescue makes good-quality hay in Missouri at key times. But weather and fescue's natural speed of maturity often mean untimely harvest, resulting in loss of energy and protein.

A growing number of southwestern Missouri farmers are turning to warm-season grasses to complement their fescue fields. "These do not have endophyte issues and can be hayed at more suitable times," Schnakenberg says. In many cases, these grasses prove more productive than fescue for pasture and hay. One southern Missouri producer averaged 5.3 dry tons of hay per acre from two cuttings on a 2018 big bluestem stand. The stand was part of a demonstration project in cooperation with the NRCS+MU Grasslands Project and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

This is consistent with trials in two other states. A University of Kentucky study found that tall fescue plots averaged 3.1 tons per acre. Native warm-season grass plots averaged 3.9 to 5.3 tons per acre per year, depending on the species. A University of Tennessee study reported that big bluestem plots yielded 5.6 tons per acre using less fertilizer than fescue.

Missouri producers who successfully converted to native grasses credit a chemical, imazapic, commonly found in Plateau and Panoramic herbicides. These products can be used safely, even during the establishment year, on new and old stands of big bluestem and Indian grass. Weed control in the first year leads to a higher success rate.

Once established, stands need care. If used for grazing, use a management-intensive grazing system. Keep post-grazing heights high and move cattle off pastures for rest periods. "Native grasses cannot be managed the same as fescue," Schnakenberg says. "If someone intends to manage a stand like their fescue stands, we do not recommend considering these grasses."

For hay, leave a high stubble so carbohydrate storage in the lower stems is not compromised. Contrary to common thinking, this does not lower overall yield.

Schnakenberg recommends that producers make the switch on small acreages to lower risk. Visit the NRCS + MU Grasslands Project website at NRCS-GrasslandsProject.missouri.edu or contact an MU Extension agronomy specialist for more information.

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