Native warm season grasses conjure up good thoughts for some and reminders of bad experiences for others according to Tim Schnakenberg, field specialist in agronomy with University of Missouri Extension.
"The truth is, these forages were all across our landscape long before tall fescue was introduced and there are still remnants of stands scattered across public and private lands throughout Missouri," said Schnakenberg.
For those who appreciate the benefits of grasses like big bluestem, switchgrass, Indiangrass, and Eastern gamagrass, use them as forages for hay and pasture and have the extra benefit of providing habitat for wildlife in production fields.
"Many have found that these grasses are superior at minimizing fertilizer and lime expense, are highly palatable and provide a large quantity of forage at needed times during the growing season," said Schnakenberg.
Some have also had bad experiences with these same grasses according to Schnakenberg.
"Most of the time the complaint is that they have spent a lot of money establishing them and the stand did not develop quickly, or at all. Some have either had failures in the establishment or have had the stands die out after a few years," said Schnakenberg.
Challenge with Fescue
Missouri has an outstanding cow-calf industry as a result of tall fescue because of its palatability, durability, ease of establishment and fall and winter grazing capability that can offset the expense of feeding hay. However, farms are missing some benefits by depending solely on fescue.
The fescue endophyte that comes with Kentucky 31 fescue is a concern. This one issue causes Missouri beef producers to lose $160 million every year in production.
"Unfortunately, many producers deny it is a serious problem on their farms because they have nothing else to compare their beef production numbers to," said Schnakenberg. "If they had a side-by-side comparison of raising the same cattle on Kentucky 31 fescue and also on a novel endophyte-friendly fescue and a native grass, the production numbers might surprise them."
The other downside to fescue is its predominant use as a hay source in Missouri. It has potential to make outstanding quality hay at key times of the year, but harvesting fescue hay rarely matches up with the climate of Missouri and too often results in a low return on investment.
"Most years, we cannot physically harvest all the fescue hay acres on time to ensure that we reach the adequate energy and protein requirements that our cow herds need," said Schnakenberg. "The weather and the natural speed of maturity works against us year after year."
These weather challenges then result in repeating the same cycle of spending lots of resources and time on harvesting a substandard hay crop that relies on expensive supplementation to offset the problem.
Warm Season Grass Production
There is a mindset in Missouri that the solution to many of the problems is to compliment fescue fields with additional fields planted to warm season grasses.
"These do not have issues with endophyte and can be hayed at more suitable times of the year for haymaking. In many cases, the native warm season grasses are much more productive per acre than fescue for both pasture and hay," said Schnakenberg.
A University of Kentucky study found their tall fescue plots averaged 3.1 tons per acre. The native warm season grass plots averaged between 3.9 and 5.3 tons of forage per acre per year, depending on the species studied.
A University of Tennessee study found after three years that their big bluestem plots yielded 5.6 tons per acre using significantly less fertilizer than fescue.
One south-Missouri producer averaged 5.3 dry tons of hay per acre from two cuttings on his big bluestem stand in 2018. This stand was part of a demonstration project in cooperation with the NRCS+MU Grasslands Project and the Missouri Department of Conservation.
"The producer had used seeded bermudagrass for many years for hay, but is switching to big bluestem since it has been more productive and uses less fertilizer," said Schnakenberg.
The challenges of establishment are real, but there are some ways to address this according to Schnakenberg.
Some Missouri producers have successfully made the conversion to these grasses and attribute the success to a herbicide chemistry called imazapic. This chemistry is commonly found in the products of Plateau and Panoramic herbicides.
"These affordable products can be safely used, even the establishment year, on new and old stands of big bluestem and Indiangrass. Weed control the first year can lead to a much higher success rate," said Schnakenberg.
Once established, the native warm season stands must be cared for notes Schnakenberg.
"If used for grazing, they must be in a Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) system where the post-grazing heights are kept high, and cattle are moved off for a significant rest period before grazing again," said Schnakenberg. "If someone intends to manage a stand like their fescue stands, we would not recommend considering these grasses."
If used for hay these grasses require a high stubble be left behind the harvester to ensure that carbohydrate storage in the lower stems are not compromised. Contrary to common thinking, this practice does not lower overall hay yields of the season according to Schnakenberg.
"We typically recommend producers start with planting small acreages to try them out and lower the risk," said Schnakenberg.
If interested in using native grasses, contact a University of Missouri Extension agronomy field specialist for more information on how to establish and manage these stands.