There is Nothing Improved About Introduced Grasses
In 1991, Leonard A. Brennan theorized that if the population decline of northern bobwhites continued until 2000, hunting opportunities would likely be lost across the majority of the range of the bobwhite. Fortunately, this has never happened. However, many of you have noticed bobwhite populations are nowhere near the numbers of the good old days. Everyone that has any interest in bobwhites always asks what happened to the birds. The blame is repeatedly placed on weather, disease and predators. Yes, these factors play a role in population levels, but habitat loss is rarely mentioned as a reason for the declining populations.
All too often, we see good to excellent bobwhite and other wildlife habitat being destroyed and replaced by introduced grasses such as bermudagrass, fescue and old world bluestems. These introduced grasses are sometimes called improved grasses, but there is nothing "improved" about these grasses when it comes to wildlife. Introduced grasses are typically monocultures, which means there is only one plant species present. Wildlife depends on a diversity of plant species. It is true that, with fertilization, introduced grasses can produce more forage than native plant communities, also called rangelands. Nevertheless, regardless of the amount of fertilizer applied to the introduced grasses, native rangelands will always support far more wildlife.
Rangelands can be very productive with proper management, but are falling victim to the plow across the Great Plains. Other than the proper application of grazing and prescribed burning, rangelands require no fertility inputs to produce a respectable amount of forage. Introduced grasses are not so improved when talking about fertility cost compared to rangelands. With the increasing price of fertilizer, producers should stop and consider this before converting any rangelands to introduced forage.
Another consideration is property value. It depends on the motivation of the individual buyer, but we have seen many rangeland properties outsell traditional ranches just for the value of the wildlife habitat. Through our surveys, we have found that the number of landowners whose primary income comes from off-the-farm sources is increasing. A number of these individuals are looking for recreational opportunities - not production agriculture enterprises. In some sections of the Noble Research Institute service area, the recreational value of land exceeds the production potential of the land.
Introduced grasses do have a place. They serve as an excellent means to control or prevent erosion. They can also be used to reduce grazing or haying pressure on rangelands. If you have both introduced and rangeland pastures in your operation, allow the native grasses to rest from midsummer to early fall. There are many species of forbs that both livestock and white-tailed deer utilize which disappear in areas with heavy grazing. Over-utilization of native pasture is detrimental to both livestock production and wildlife habitat. This is not to say that you shouldn't graze your native grasses, but do allow them time to rest so they can produce seed and build up root reserves for next year's forage production. In most cases, native grasses need to be periodically disturbed through grazing or prescribed burning.
If wildlife is important to you, whether your reason is aesthetic, personal recreation or business, introduced grasses will not improve the wildlife on your property.
If you are interested in learning more about bobwhite management, the 2007 Bollenbach Symposium and the Oklahoma Chapter of The Wildlife Society meeting is in Woodward, Okla., on Oct. 18-19. For more information visit nrem.okstate.edu/Extension or contact Dwayne Elmore at (405) 744-9636.