Patience Required for Prairie-Modeled Pasture

Christine Gelley, Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator, Noble County OSU Extension (originally published in the Ohio Farmer)

A prairie modeled pasture planting can provide high yielding, good quality forage in the driest part of the growing season. Photo: Jason Jones

If I were to make a playlist for establishing native warm-season pastures, these songs would be on it:

  • “Patience” by Guns N’ Roses
  • “No Rush” by Josh Turner
  • “Fools Rush In” by Elvis Presley
  • “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes
  • “I’m in a Hurry” by Alabama

Yes, patience is the theme of the playlist and patience is a virtue when establishing pastures that mimic native prairie ecosystems. The benefits of establishing a native warm-season grass stand come hand in hand with the challenges. The greatest of these challenges is simply being patient for the seed to germinate and the plants to grow. A common cause of seeding failures is the land manager’s anxiety and in inclination to change courses in the first few years after seeding a prairie mix.

The expected wait time for a native warm-season grass stand to reach the state considered “fully established” is three years; three whole years. In order to prepare for establishment and follow through with maintenance, the forage manager has to prepare a completely different strategy from the typical cool-season perennial plan. Preparing the site before seeding; how to exclude the area from harvest for an extended period of time; how to treat for weeds; how to fertilize; and how to harvest are all slightly different because of the biological differences between plants native to The Great Plains and the imported forages we commonly grow in Ohio that are actually native to the European grassland.

Even when everything goes according to plan, the early results of planting natives like big bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, and eastern gamagrass can be disappointing early on, but with patience, time, and weed suppression, the labor exerted will yield the full reward of these plants’ potential. Warm-season natives are high yielding and persistent during the time that cool-season grass growth declines in the summer.

The primary concern of seedling native prairie grasses in year one is to establish a strong root system and then develop tillers above ground. The bunch type growth habit of these plants leads to patchy looking rows with open ground in between where annual and perennial weeds can encroach before tiller development takes off. Weed control in year one and two are critical to prevent competition for nutrients and sunlight. Tolerance to herbicides varies by grass type and should be considered before application.

One of the greatest benefits of the prairie ecosystem is the immense diversity of plants, animals, and insects that reside in the grassland. Combining native grasses, legumes, and forbs becomes complicated when managed as an agronomic crop. Depending on the intensity of the weed pressure on the site, it may be best to wait to introduce broadleaf plants (legumes and forbs) by interseeding in year three of establishment. This allows two seasons of broadleaf weed control before diversifying the pasture mix and significantly limiting weed control options.

Many producers wonder if warm-season and cool-season grasses can successfully be grown in the same field. This practice is not advised for Ohio. There is not a good way to maximize growth for both types in the same space. One or the other will suffer when attempting to harvest for best yield or best quality. In mixed systems the ideal time for harvest, whether by grazing or for hay, do not coincide for both cool-season and warm-season plants.

If cool-season forages are interseeded into warm-season forages, they will likely only last one to two years under grazing and in hay systems the warm-season forages would likely struggle to develop good root systems because of competition with the cool-seasons. Due to the physiological differences in plant growth, the best way to manage warm-seasons and cool-seasons on the same farm is in separate pastures.

If considering adding warm-season annual grasses with warm-season perennials, competition is still an issue and neither crop will grow to it’s full potential.

When managed with care and patience a prairie modeled pasture planting can provide high yielding, good quality forage in the hottest and driest part of the growing season. Having both warm-season and cool-season options on the farm can decrease the need for stored feed, increase the total potential yield of the farm, improve soil health, and provide wildlife benefits while also meeting the needs of ruminant livestock.

There are numerous conservation programs that support the establishment of prairie modeled pasture in various complexities. To learn more about cost-share programs available in your area, contact your local Farm Service Agency, Soil and Water Conservation District, or Pheasants and Quail Forever service personnel to evaluate the feasibility of native warm-season forages on your farm.