Landowners searching for a natural grazing alternative that provides increased wildlife and overall ecosystem benefits, may want to consider implementing native warm-season grasses into their land management plan.
What are native warm season grasses?
Native warm season grasses are annual and perennial grasses that thrived in the South prior to human habitation and the introduction of non-native grasses.
Prevalent historically in the prairie regions and in the understory of fire-maintained forests, these grasses and the native forbs (such as legumes and wildflowers) that occurred with them were well adapted to the region’s soils, climate, insects and diseases.
These grasses were originally grazed by bison and elk and later by free-ranging European domestic livestock.
Unfortunately, man’s use of the land caused the native grassland ecosystem to change dramatically. Forestry practices allowed over-shading in forest stands and agricultural practices utilized heavy plowing and over-grazing, significantly reducing the prevalence of native warm season grass species.
The introduction of non-native grasses for soil stabilization and livestock forage also altered the native grassland ecosystem.
Still, native warm season grasses are not completely absent from today’s landscape. They tend to grow along roadsides, railroad and power line rights-of-way and other less traveled areas.
Some of the most common native warm season grasses that occur include big bluestem, little bluestem, broomsedge, indiangrass, switchgrass and eastern gamagrass.
Why restore native warm-season grasses?
Restoring the once dominant native warm-season grasses to their historic range can help landowners meet multiple objectives for both wildlife and forage production.
Wildlife habitat: The diverse mixture of grasses and forbs provides better food and cover resources for wildlife species than non-native grasses such as bermudagrass and tall fescue. The increased habitat diversity provided by the forbs offers seeds, nectar and green forage and attracts insects that are food sources for other wildlife.
Eastern cottontail, northern bobwhite, grassland songbirds and butterflies are just a few of the species that benefit from the structure and cover of native warm season grass restoration.
Livestock forage: For producers seeking to improve livestock forage, native warm-season grasses provide tall, deep-rooted perennials with excellent drought tolerance and high yields. When compared to their cool-season counterparts, native warm season grasses use water more efficiently and are better adapted to hot, dry summer conditions.
By providing forage during the summer months, warm-season grasses reduce dependence on cool-season grasses and give pastures an opportunity to rest, requiring less reseeding and a reduction in soil erosion.
Studies have shown that cattle demonstrate improved summer weight gains when grazing native warm season grasses compared to bermudagrass or bahiagrass. Also, the higher per-acre yields of these grasses reduce the number of acres needed for hay production, liberating additional acres for grazing.
Ecosystem restoration: A host of plant and wildlife species depend on prairie, oak woodland savannah and pine woodland savannah ecosystems for their success.
Transforming a landscape of non-native grasses to native grasses and forbs and restoring woodland savannahs will enhance the quality of areas through the creation of valuable wildlife habitat and grassland ecosystems.