During my graduate program at The University of Tennessee there was a defined interest in utilizing warm-season perennial grasses as grazing pasture for beef cattle. One of the greatest influences for this interest is persistence during high heat and drought tolerance. The same could be applied for Ohio.
Although our number of growing degree days are fewer than producers have in the South, we are still capable of incorporating warm-season perennials into our grazing systems. We also experience periods of high heat and drought. Our typical sources of grazing pastures are cool-season grasses (ex: tall fescue, orchardgrass, ryegrass, timothy) and legumes (ex: white clover, red clover, alfalfa), which are much less hardy than the grasses discussed here. Part of the reason is the way the plants photosynthesize (a.k.a. turn light into food), how they utilize water in the process, and differences in structural growth. Warm-season grasses are more efficient photosynthesizers, however the forage they produce in the process is of lesser nutritive value than cool-season grasses.
The tradeoff can be worthwhile in times of stress, on marginal sites, remediation, and for wildlife enthusiasts. Forage of less than ideal nutritive value that is available is more valuable to grazing livestock than no forage at all. The greatest advantages of including warm-season perennials in a grazing system are the ability to combat “summer-slump”-the time in mid-summer when our cool-season plants tend to go dormant until cooler, wetter weather returns, drought tolerance when water is scarce, and the ability to extend the grazing season, which in turn means feeding less hay.
In addition, warm-season perennial grasses produce large amounts of dry matter for animals to consume with little inputs. Fertilizer needs are low, water needs are low, there are few pests or pathogens that are threats, and they can withstand vast changes in weather.
Some of the limitations of establishing these grasses are lack of available improved varieties for specific regions, slow establishment rates, they mature quickly, and they cannot tolerate close grazing.
Although animal intake is typically lower for these grasses than we see with our traditional options, animal intake and weight gain can still be sufficient for achieving production goals when managed for both the plant and animals’ success.
Not all species and varieties of warm-season perennial grasses are created equal. Research available varieties suited for your conditions, buy high quality seed, and start with good seedbed preparation. One of the greatest struggles of managing these grasses is weed control. Start clean of weeds and stay clean to hasten establishment.
Here are some of the details of the four most common warm-season perennial grasses:
Are you interested in learning more about how to plant, manage, and identify warm-season perennial grasses?
Investigate these resources from the Center for Native Grasslands Management:
Most are oriented to site conditions in Tennessee; however the concepts are the same for Ohio. The calendar dates may need adjusted slightly for your location. Check the Ohio Agronomy Guide for recommendations or contact Christine Gelley to converse about your site.
• Establishing Warm-Season Perennials: http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/PB-1873-Native-Grass-Forages.pdf
• Weed Competition Control (Herbicide Recommendations): http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/SP731-F.pdf
• Seedling I.D.: http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/SeedlingIDGuideforNativeGrassesSoutheast.pdf
• Grazing Management: http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/SP731-C.pdf
• Hay Management: http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/SP731-D.pdf
• Adjusting Cutting Height: http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/SP731-I.pdf
EDITOR’s NOTE: Learn more about strategically incorporating warm season perennials into your forage management plan during the ‘virtual’ edition of Pastures for Profit beginning on January 13.