Establishment of Native Warm and Cool Season Grasses on Highly Erodible Land

Final Report for FNC92-022

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1992: $2,951.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1994
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $14,902.00
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Establishment of native warm season grasses (WSG) on highly erodible land (HEL), C-slope, and poor, non-cropped ground. Grasses included big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgass, and Eastern gamagrass, with all grasses being genotype specific to our area. Matua bromegrass, a cool season perennial from New Zealand, was also experimented with for the first time.

This is a 320-acre farm made up of 70% pasture and hay, 30% hardwood forest, and 1 acre of asparagus. Livestock includes: 40 Buffalo (American Plains Bison), 8 Rocky Mountain Elk, 2 Ostriches (recently liquidated 40 head of Limousine/Angus crossbred cows). Grain Crops: none.

The farm is located in the SW corner of Illinois about 50 miles north of St. Louis, MO. It lies in the northern end of Calhoun County in Belleview Township, section 36 T. 8S.-R.3W which is bordered by the Mississippi river to the west and the Illinois River to the east.

Five years previous to the grant application, we established approximately 12 acres of native warm season grasses (WSG) due to our interest in buffalo and the natural sustainability of grass. This was done at our own expense due to lack of interest and/or cooperation from our local SCS or ASCS.

Assistance came from Pike County Soil Conservation Service via Tim Krummweddie in the form of a no-till drill capable of planting a variety of WSG simultaneously, if required. Gary E. Potts, District Private Land Habitat Biologist from the Illinois Department of Conservation in Vandalia, Illinois provided a wealth of technical information as well as actual hands on expertise.

Bill McCartney from the Two Rivers RC&D in Pittsfield, Illinois provided technical support in making application for the grant and encouragement to get involved in the Western Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Association.

Cost of establishment was the initial barrier to overcome. The total soil health was increased to an adequate level with applications of micro-nutrients, NPK, and lime. Seed costs were also substantial, with Eastern gamagrass being as much as $100.00/acre. However, it should be noted that this establishment will be a one-time expense.

The areas to be planted were burned down with a single application of Roundup, either the previous fall or 3-4 weeks prior to no-till drilling. Indiangrass, switchgrass and big bluestem, were all no-tilled. No herbicides were used in establishing these three grasses on any of our plots. In fact, about 10 acres received no burn down at all and seed was drilled into corn stubble from the previous year. Eastern gamagrass was established using conventional methods as well as no-till drilling and no-till planting with a JD7000 no-till planter at row spacings of 30” and 38”.

Establishment was initiated on 5/1/93, however NPK was not applied until 5/1/94 when seedling could utilize the nutrients more efficiently. Establishments were slow with about 40-50% germination of stratified Eastern gamagrass seed the first year. Subsequent germinations in following years were somewhere in the 80-85% range resulting in near total germination in 3-5 years (my estimation from previously established fields). The slow growth of the other 3 grasses gave the appearance of a total failure in the first year to the untrained, impatient eye, especially where no burn down or other herbicides were used. However, by year 2, quite a few shafts of grass were observed and by years 3-4 the good quality of the stand was obvious.

None of the warm season grasses should be cut below 6-8” because a large portion of the plant reserves are stored in the plant bases. This seems to be more critical with the Eastern gamagrass because of its rapid regrowth potential. After the first cutting, around May 15, it was not unusual to find 4-7” of new growth after 2 days. Yield has been between 2-4 ton/acre when harvested in the second year of establishment. The factors contributing the most were the amount of rainfall the establishment year, whether nitrogen was added (usually 100lbs actual), and the germination rate the first year.

Possibly because it is considered the grandfather of corn, Eastern gamagrass responded to higher levels of fertilizer than the other 3 native grasses planted. The actual seed is about the size, shape, and color of milo seed, but it is encapsulated in a hard core about the size of a kernel of corn. It was planted at soil depths comparable to corn.

Eastern gamagrass definitely greens up faster in the spring and has faster first year growth than any of the other WSG planted. In a normal year with adequate rainfall and fertilizer, 3 cuttings were harvested 45 days apart, typically June 1, July 15, and the end of August or the first part of September, again depending on rainfall. Yields ranged from 4-6 tons per acre of 11% to 15% protein forage containing 65% TDN on an oven dry basis.

It may be necessary to plant Indiangrass, switchgrass and big bluestem in pure stands if optimum protein usage is important, as they mature at different times in the summer. Also pure stands would be an advantage if seed harvest for sale or your own use is ever to become an option.

Although my experience is limited, I think native forbs might equally play a part in establishment especially any of those that fix nitrogen. At this point, I’m not sure whether seeding any of the N-fixing clovers would work because of the plants’ ability to shadow so much of the ground around it and how dense it becomes even though it is a bunch grass. I plan to experiment with this in the future.

Herbicide use has been limited mostly to spot spraying of nutsedge and quackgrass with atrazine and Accent on those trouble spots. Ideally, in future plantings, it may be beneficial to burn down with Roundup and use a no-till drill for placing Indiangrass, switchgrass, and big bluestem seed into stubble or sod, whether the ground is HEL or not. For Eastern gamagrass, a burn down and a no-till planter on HEL soils with minimum till on non-HEL soils is suggested because the stands on the tilled soils seemed to be better at this point, although in 5 years there may not appear to be any difference.

One of the biggest drawbacks, or the hard sell, is that most people aren’t happy about losing 2-3 years to get a good establishment even though this should be the last time that particular acreage should have to be touched, in regards to establishing a crop, if managed properly. This particular concept of management is the toughest lesson to teach to those unfamiliar with warm season grasses.

My reasons for choosing these grasses are as follows:

1. One of the main reasons was our unhappiness with fescue due to the known fungus problems and the observation that buffalo and elk didn’t really like it. We also blamed the fungus for a poor calf crop 3 years in a row although it was not confirmed. Incidentally, calving percentages have increased since we have limited access to the fescue.
2. Alfalfa seems not to last as long due to drought or winterkill and aphids seem to be a never-ending problem.
3. The time of the first cutting of alfalfa seems too hard on the animals that nest in it, namely quail, rabbits and turkey. By the time the WSG are ready for harvesting most all of these nesters have finished.
4. Leaving 6-8” stubble still provides adequate cover for the animals between cuttings as well as through the winter months. When allowed to go to seed, if the last cutting permits, it will provide some food through the winter months.
5. The protein level is adequate for most livestock, particularly buffalo and elk, since they don’t require the levels of protein that domestic stock does.
6. These grasses need to be established only once with minimal input for maintenance when compared to other choices of pasture or hay with similar levels of protein and nutrition.
7. WSG provide forage at times when the native cool season grasses are at their lowest ability to produce and thus fill the void of continued quality nutrition through the hot and dry summer months.
8. WSG are highly palatable to all classes of livestock. Whether offered as dry hay or green, the buffalo and elk have grazed WSG selectively.
9. Seed production could also become an alternative; as the interest in WSG is growing, the need for a source of viable seed should grow as well.

The method I had intended to use was a field day, but due to the floods of 1993 this wasn’t possible. Also the slow establishment of the grasses wouldn’t give one much to look at except that it could show someone what a newly established stand might resemble and keep them from being discouraged early in the established year. Currently I am on the Board of Directors for the Western Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Society and it is through this that I hope to have a field day in the summer of 1995. Twenty to seventy people have participated in the events that WISAS has sponsored in the past.

We have many people interested in the buffalo and elk stop by throughout the year and I make it a point to tell them about the WSG and the advantages they lend to our farm and lifestyle. Although my results may be a little below advertised yields, I still consider the trade off of a lower yield against all the positive points a real success for me and will continue to divide our farm up between cool season and WSG. For us and nature, establishment of warm season grasses is a win-win situation, both financially and in terms of sustainability.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.