What is in this article?:
- Do native grasses have a place on Alabama farms?
- Warm-season option
• After centuries, native grasses with names such as eastern gamagrass, switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem and Indiangrass are making a comeback.
In north Alabama, where cool-season forage is the norm on most farms, native grasses can offer a warm-season forage option, Ball says.
"They have extensive root systems that allow them to obtain moisture and nutrients from a large volume of soil," he says. "Consequently, they can be productive during periods of drought or in situations where little fertilizer has been applied."
While these grasses can be grown either for pasture or hay, they typically fit best as grazing crops, Ball says.
Challenges remain, though.
"The bluestems and Indiangrass have fluffy seed that are quite difficult to plant with conventional planting equipment," Ball says.
Likewise, while eastern gamagrass can be planted with a corn planter, its seeds have a physiological dormancy that requires a special wet chilling process just before planting.
Compared with transplanted species, native grasses also require considerably more patience on the part of the producer.
"With all these native grasses, establishment tends to be slow, so during the first year there is usually little forage production, and weed control may be a challenge," Ball says.
Yet another added challenge involves grazing management. The growing points of native grasses — the tips of stems where new growth occurs — tend to be more elevated in native plants, which is why grazing management is considered extra important.
"The plants should never be grazed more closely than 8 to 10 inches," Ball says, adding that controlled burns every three years during the winter are important to enhance productivity.
In fact, this limitation is what historically provided transplanted grasses with a distinct advantage over native species, Ball says. Much of the eastern United States was heavily forested before the European's arrival, which meant that native grasses were not subjected to heavy animal grazing more common on the Plains where buffalo were prevalent.
"The nomadic nature of grazing animals in the western plains provided native grasses with a rest period after being grazed," he explains.
Even so, Ball says these native species can last indefinitely on pasturelands where they're well adapted and well managed.
Also, in cases where grazing can be controlled, native grasses provide valuable summer forage during dry periods.
There are environmental advantages too. Native grasses are excellent wildlife plants, especially for ground nesting birds, such as quail and wild turkey, Balls says.
Their extensive root systems can also provide superb erosion control and serve as a buffer along riparian areas.
In some cases, the Natural Resources Conservation Service can offer financial assistance for planting native grasses, he says.