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Establishing Native Grass

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High fertilizer prices, the aesthetics of a rangeland prairie setting versus a monoculture forage base, and advantageous government cost-share programs have led to many acres being planted to native grass or rangeland over the past five to 10 years. Fall is a good time to look further into the pros and cons of this practice to prepare for the spring growing season.

The success of a newly planted native grass stand depends on several factors. As with any newly planted forage, adequate rainfall during the establishment period is critical. In addition, the absence of competition from weeds or other grasses is also critical in obtaining a good first year stand of native grass. Even under the best of conditions, with good moisture and low competition from other plants, native grass will normally not be ready to graze until late in the second year.

Another thing to consider is that native grass has to be stocked moderately (no more than 50 percent removal of annual growth) in most cases in order to remain productive. With the exception of a monoculture of tall native grasses such as Eastern gamagrass and switchgrass, the amount of grazeable forage for most native grass mixtures will be 30 percent to 50 percent of that of bermudagrass or similar warm-season introduced grasses with moderate fertilizer levels (50-80 lbs. nitrogen/acre/year).

On the other hand, native grasses add diversity to a grazing operation, can enhance land value (debatable), they are relatively self-sustaining (no fertilizer is needed), they can provide wildlife habitat if managed correctly, and, along with supplemental protein, they can be used into the winter as adequate standing roughage for cattle. The 2007 growing season has rejuvenated many grass stands, however, there still are many instances where the existing forage base is degraded enough that people are considering planting a native grass mixture. Consider the following sequence of practices if you choose to plant a native grass:

  1. First identify the forage base and determine if it is manageable for your goals or if conversion to native grass is more desirable.
  2. When weeds are no taller than 2-3 inches next spring, spray the pasture with one quart of 2,4-D per acre plus 0.25 percent non-ionic surfactant by volume.
  3. When grasses that are released by herbicide get about two-thirds of mature size and before seed formation (this should be in early June), disk pasture 3-4 inches deep. Depending on moisture conditions, you may have to do this somewhat earlier, but the best results will be in early June if moisture is adequate.
  4. If much common bermudagrass is released by the 2-4,D application, you may have to disc again later in the year to keep stolons (trailing stems capable of rooting) or crowns from re-sprouting and making seed.
  5. By no later than mid-October, smooth the pasture, and fertilize and plant one and one-half bushels of a small grain such as wheat or cereal rye per acre.
  6. Pastures can be grazed by cattle during the winter, but don't feed hay on pasture, or alternate grazing winter pasture and feeding hay (to avoid bringing in any seed).
  7. Try to graze the small grain crop down to an average of 3-4 inches by March.
  8. In March, or before the small grain starts jointing (stem elongation), burn down the stand with one quart of glyphosate per acre.
  9. Drill a native grass seed mixture into the killed small grain stubble by no later than May 1 in order to take advantage of spring moisture.

If you already have taken care of weeds and competitive warm-season grasses during the year, you can jump into the sequence at step five.

Visit with a rangeland consultant to determine the appropriate native grass mix for your soil conditions. Seed availability can often be limiting, so make these plans several months prior to planting.

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