Perennials are also much cheaper in the long-run (30 percent to 40 percent less expensive per ton of hay produced).

Consider native grasses. Native grasses, such as switchgrass, big bluestem and eastern gamagrass, are all warm-season perennials and handle dry weather remarkably well. These grasses are the same species that thrive in the semi-arid Great Plains and make up a large proportion of that region’s forage.

Make drought tolerant species a priority. Native grasses, such as big bluestem, have been documented to grow roots to depths of 10 feet or more where bedrock is not limiting. 

Switchgrass, another native, produces almost four times the root biomass as tall fescue within the first year after planting. Over ten years, studies have shown that switchgrass will produce about five tons per acre of root mass within the first 12 inches of the soil horizon. 

Such root systems, common to all of these tall-growing natives, make these the most drought-tolerant forage grasses to grow in the area.

Natives produce quality summer forage. Recent research at the University of Tennessee has demonstrated that cattle do well on these grasses during summer months, commonly posting gains of between 1.5 and 2.0 pounds per day on steers. 

Bred heifers typically gain between 1.0 and 1.5 pounds daily on these grasses. 

Blends of big bluestem and indiangrass provide better daily gains, but switchgrass and gamagrass can support heavier stocking rates.

Natives require more management.  Native grasses, in part because of their deep root systems, can take a full year before you can begin grazing them and are not fully mature until the third year. 

Once established, they require closer management than short-growing grasses, with maintaining adequate canopy height a key concern.

Native pastures last many years.Studies and experience in the region have shown that with proper management, native grasses can last for 15 years and beyond — ample time to pay off the initial investment (especially when the reduced inputs that natives require are considered).

How much summer forage is enough? Studies have indicated that growing about 30 percent warm-season forages may be an appropriate level — perhaps more farther south and less farther north. 

Consider that three to four of the approximately nine or 10 grazing months in the region occur during the hot part of the year. 

Given the efficiency of natives, virtually all dedicated hay ground could be in these grasses. Regardless of the proper ratio, start small and evaluate your need for more summer grasses as you go.

For more information on establishing and managing native grasses, visit the website for the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture Center for Native Grasslands Management at