For John and Jim Lavender, cattle producers in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., the drought that has covered Alabama could have devastated their livestock operation.

While the drought has caused many producers to reduce herd size as well as buy supplemental feed for the remaining livestock, the Lavenders have approached the problem from another angle.

They use a rotational grazing system, including some native grasses. That approach to grazing has proved very profitable during these long, dry summers.

The Lavenders have a “lean and mean” livestock operation. They feed very little hay during the winter or in periods of drought. They have implemented a rotational grazing system on their 200-acre farm that allows their 100 or so cow-calf pairs and a few bulls to graze most of the year.

They rotate the cows between 16 pastures, five to 25 acres in size, allowing the cows to graze from two to seven days in each pasture, depending on the pasture size and available forage. Each pasture then rests three to four weeks. They have learned that even during dry times, the grasses in rotation continue to produce forage since they have a healthy root system.

The majority of the pastures consist of bermudagrass, bahiagrass and Dallisgrass.

Pastures are overseeded in the fall with ryegrass and clover. A newly planted novel endophyte tall fescue pasture is still developing. Two pastures are dedicated to annual plantings of ryegrass. Cows graze these pastures using intensive grazing techniques, strip grazing and limit grazing.

Instead of harvesting hay from the bermudagrass pastures, the Lavenders allow the cows to graze it. In some pastures, the forage is allowed to grow in late summer and fall, stockpiling the forage for later use after a killing frost.

In some years, this stockpiled forage has provided grazing into January, which significantly reduces the need for hay. When the cows are on the stock-piled bermudagrass, a protein supplement is provided to meet their nutritional requirements.

In about 1995, the Lavenders decided to expand their forage options and experiment with several native warm season grass — Alamo switchgrass, Cave-in-Rock switchgrass and Indiangrass. From the varieties planted, the Alamo switchgrass has survived and is producing well for them.

It was during the worst of the drought this year that John and Jim noticed the switchgrass was still green and actually growing.

Other grasses like bahiagrass, bermudagrass or Dallisgrass were not growing and had turned brown.

During the recent drought, forage was at a premium on the Lavender farm, but the switchgrass provided significant forage for their herd. As a result, they have been able to maintain their herd and the cattle have been grazing while many producers were feeding hay.

The Lavenders have two pastures of switchgrass that they use for prescribed grazing. They have learned to manage the switchgrass to get the most efficient use of the forage.

The growing points in switchgrass are elevated above the ground and must be protected to insure survival. For that reason, producers should turn the livestock into the pasture when the switchgrass is about 20 inches in height, and they should stop grazing when the forage is about 10 inches high. That means switchgrass must be carefully managed with a rotational grazing system.

Continually overgrazing switchgrass will cause the stand to decline significantly and eventually die. Once established, however, a good stand of native warm-season grasses will last indefinitely if properly managed to give the grasses a competitive advantage over weeds.

Native warm-season perennial grasses are a viable alternative to more traditional grasses like bahiagrass, bermudagrass or Dallisgrass.

USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has cost-share programs that assist in establishing native grasses. Kent McCray, NRCS district conservationist, says, “Including native grasses in a grazing system provides flexibility. A commitment to proper planting and management is necessary. Switchgrass does well on a wide variety of soil types. Unlike cool-season grasses, it is drought tolerant and produces well on shallow, rocky soils.”

This year could have been disastrous for the Lavenders. Instead, the grazing management alternatives they have implemented on their farm have proven to be invaluable, keeping their cows on the farm and helping to keep their operation solvent.

For more information about establishing a grazing system or native grasses, contact your local USDA Service Center. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is administered by NRCS, provides cost-share assistance for these practices.