Advantages of Growing “Summer” Native Grass Pastures

— Written By Glenn Detweiler and last updated by Judy Moore
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What are the advantages of growing a native warm season grass? Native Warm Season Grasses (NWSG) historically grew in North Carolina prior to European settlement with peak production occurring during the summer months. This fits right into our need to have a perennial warm season grass while fescue is dormant in the summer months allowing livestock producers to avoid Fescue toxicity and provide excellent gains over the summer using NWSG (Native Warm Season Grasses). Common NWSG include Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass and Eastern Gamagrass. Big Bluestem is important for livestock because it is so well adapted to our soils and climate with excellent drought tolerance and high yields that require minimal to no fertilizer and no lime inputs. When managed appropriately, this grass not only provides excellent forage for cattle during the summer months but may also be cut for hay, providing excellent feed for cattle in the winter. It is equally important as a perennial bunch grass that provides cover for wildlife due to its growth structure, which creates open space on the ground with canopy cover above. This structure provides safety for ground nesting birds, such as quail and wild turkeys. It allows safe movement for small mammals like rabbits. Most livestock and hay activity will occur after nesting is complete in late spring. When properly managed, Big Bluestem can provide multi-season habitat for many wildlife species. Since 2001, biologists have evaluated many habitat enhancement projects in western North Carolina. They concluded that NWSG, which includes Big Bluestem, has many advantages because of this dual purpose for cattle forage and wildlife habitat. They have developed a program (CURE) which provides technical assistance and equipment to farmers and landowners. Equipment includes herbicide sprayers, a native-grass no-till drill, and prescribed fire equipment used to establish and manage Big Bluestem fields. In general, a working plan is prepared by Mr. Jason Smith (area wildlife specialist) and the producer a year in advance and preparation begins in the fall before the actual planting begins. Smith provides equipment and guidance throughout the year for farmers to complete the work plan. Generally, with adequate rainfall and a 2 year establishment phase, a successful field of Big Bluestem will provide benefit to cattle and wildlife. 

Prescribed fire is an important tool to help manage Big Bluestem in late March to early April. Fire recycles some of the fertilizer and minerals quickly. It creates a black field surface which heats up fast in spring, initiating new plant growth. Fire safety is very important. There are a number of different fire burning options or the use of an herbicide instead of fire. The Wildlife Conservation Land Program (WCLP) hired Smith to help farmers and landowners establish Native Warm Season Grasses (NWSG) for forage and wildlife habitat in the western piedmont and mountains. If you are interested in using Big Bluestem for cattle, call the Cooperative Extension Service (704-736-8461) to discuss the pros and cons of Big Bluestem with your local Livestock Extension Agent, Glenn Detweiler. Detweiler assists in planning the educational programs occurring every 2nd Tuesday evening of the month at the Catawba Valley Cattlemen’s Association meeting. All are welcome.