Restoring Native Grasses for Livestock Forage
IUKA, Miss. — With interest increasing across the South to plant native grass varieties as wildlife and livestock forages, more farmers are exploring the productivity and economic viability of native grasses compared to the more common non-native grass varieties.
A Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Producer Grant is providing one Mississippi farmer the opportunity to measure how well native warm-season grasses stack up against their non-native counterparts in terms of establishment cost, annual maintenance cost, annual yield-per-acre, nutrient content and product availability.
Tulon McKee, Jr. of McKee Farms in Iuka, MS, will spend the next three years comparing native switchgrass, Indian grass, and little bluestem to Bahiagrass, a non-native variety.
“The Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority are persuading landowners to plant more native grass species for livestock forage and wildlife food and habitat, but there is a lack of data available comparing the native grasses to non-native variety grasses,” said McKee.
Bahiagrass, a hardy warm-season perennial, is popular with livestock producers as grazing forage and hay because it’s ideally adapted to droughty, sandy soils, tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, produces moderate yields with low fertility, and withstands close grazing.
There is a movement, however, to restore native warm-season grasses, which have degraded and been out-competed by non-native grass varieties.
“The primary effect on the sustainability of agriculture across the South,” said McKee, “is that native grasses can provide forage for livestock and are a better food and habitat source for wildlife than non-native grass varieties. In addition, it’s thought that native grasses are easier and cheaper to maintain, lowering the producers’ annual production costs while at the same time improving the wildlife population.”
McKee plans to plant four acres of native grasses and compare their performance with an existing 4-acre stand of Bahiagrass.
“I will monitor the growth and the pounds of both green forage and dry hay produced per acre,” said McKee. “In addition, I will have the green forage and dry hay both analyzed for nutritional value and will keep records comparing the cost of production of the grasses so the economic factors can be considered.”
McKee plans to plant the native grasses in mid-April. Green forage samples will be taken at the end of each month during the growing season for the duration of the grant. Hay will be cut and sampled during the growing season when the forage reaches the appropriate recommended height. For Bahiagrass, the height is eight inches or every five weeks, whichever comes first. For native grasses, the recommended height is two feet.
The amount of the Southern SARE Producer Grant is $9,982.
Southern SARE Producer Grants, one of the organization’s seven grant opportunities, allow farmers and ranchers to explore sustainable agriculture production research projects. The program not only helps them solve on-farm problems, but also allows them to share their results with fellow farmers and ranchers who face similar issues.
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America’s Southern region.