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Could Native Warm Season Grasses Relieve Your Drought Headaches?

Time to replant your pastures thanks to another drought? Getting tired of replanting the same pasture every few years and feeding cattle hay during dry summer months?

Before replanting your pasture, Dr. Pat Keyser, director of The University of Tennessee's Center for Native Grasslands Management, recommends you ask yourself a few questions first.

  1. Was your pasture in poor shape before going into the drought?

  2. Are you asking cool season grasses — such as tall fescue or orchardgrass — to withstand weather it is not well suited for?

To improve your land's ability to withstand future droughts, consider planting native warm season grasses — which can grow roots to depths of 10 feet or more, making them some of the most drought tolerant grasses to plant.

Although native warm season grasses require closer management than short growing grasses, their stands can last up to 15 years or longer. Plus, recent studies by the University of Tennessee found that cattle fared well grazing on native warm season grasses during the summer, typically gaining between one to two pounds or more daily depending upon the grass and age/sex of the cattle.

For more details, download Dr. Keyser's complete article.

Establishing native grasses and forbs

Native warm season grasses and forbs also provide excellent nesting and brood-rearing habitat for an abundance of wildlife, including ground-nesting birds like northern bobwhite quail and wild turkey. They provide needed winter escape cover, seeds and insects. The seeds of many of the forbs provide food as well as an abundance of insects attracted to the plants.

Native warm season grasses are naturally adapted to soils and climate and, once established, are easier to maintain than traditional plantings. They can be planted in wildlife openings, roadsides, in thinned planted pines or edges of crop fields to create early successional habitat.

Establishing native grasses and forbs is an important first step in bringing back and increasing your game bird populations.

13 Tips for Planting and Maintaining Native Warm Season Grasses and Forbs

  1. Plant in areas with full sun, including wildlife openings, roadsides, edges of croplands, thinned planted pines, etc.

  2. Control competition. Use herbicides to control weeds and exotic grasses (like Bermuda and fescue) the year before planting.

  3. Establish good seed-to-soil contact. Remove any thatch layer by burning or harrowing.

  4. Plant in spring after the danger of frost has passed and when the soil temperature reaches at least 55 F.

  5. Do not plant too deeply (no more than a quarter inch), just enough to have seed-to-soil contact. Preparing the seed bed with a cultipacker is preferred both before and after planting.

  6. Debearded seed can be planted with a spreader or conventional drill, but monitor closely for clogging. Use a carrier (pelletized lime or fertilizer) for broadcasting. You can rent special native warm season grass drills from many local Resource Conservation and Development Councils.

  7. Stand establishment depends primarily on rain. Planting before a rain will speed germination. In the South, a good stand can be established in the first growing season, but native warm season grasses/forbs will not germinate or grow as quickly as conventional agricultural crops. Be patient!

  8. Once established, native warm season grasses/forbs do not need fertilizer or lime. Application will only increase competition from weeds.

  9. Prescribe burn (November to February) the site every two to three years to remove accumulated litter, stimulate vigorous growth, and reduce tree and shrub invasion. Burn only a quarter to half of the site annually to maintain some cover, and rotate every year.

  10. Strip disc one third of the site every two to three years to stimulate forb seed germination and thin out overabundant grasses.

  11. There should be some bare ground and room for quail chicks and turkey poults to move through the plantings.

  12. Spot spray herbicide on any invasive weeds or woody growth that is not controlled by fire.

  13. Contact your local natural resources professional for a periodic evaluation and recommendations.

The NWTF offers several regionally adapted native warm season grass/forb mixtures. The mixes are sold in acre units and all prices included shipping.

Visit NWTF's online retail store for more information about our native warm season grass mixes tailored for specific regions of the country, or call (800) THE-NWTF. — Donnie Buckland, NWTF director of upland game programs



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