Though Weather is Cold, Time to Think of Warm-Season Grasses

March 24, 2018

DOSWELL, Va. — J.B. Daniels, forage and grassland agronomist from Farmville, talked about maximizing forage at the recent Eastern Virginia Forage and Grazing Conference.

The conference, sponsored by Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia Tech, focused on the development of native forages to increase productivity.

Speakers talked about converting fescue pasture to productive summer perennials, planting grasses to benefit wildlife and livestock, use of annual grasses to renovate pasture, and weed control.

Daniels talked about how using native warm-season grasses and rotational grazing can increase productivity. He said that switchgrass, bluestem and Indiangrass have good forage quality and are adapted to the region.

The native warm-season grasses have done well in grazing trials with weaned calves gaining 1.5 to 2 pounds per day in contrast to weaned calves on traditional fescue gaining 0.8 pounds per day.

Traditional fescue drops in production in the summer while warm-season grasses are at their peak.

The warm-season grasses use less fertilizer and lime, but they require better management. Daniels said these tall native grasses can’t stand continuous close grazing. He said that grazing should begin in late spring when the grass is 18 to 20 inches tall, and livestock rotated off when it is grazed down to 10 inches.

Daniels also talked about how to convert fescue pasture to summer perennials. He said to plan a year ahead and start by killing the existing grasses with a fall spray, followed up by an early spring spray, and then planting at least two weeks before the last frost — mid-March to mid-April.

He said not to apply nitrogen at planting nor graze the establishment year, and to clip weeds above the grass seedlings as necessary.

David Bryan, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, talked about the 50-year decline of the Northern bobwhite quail and other grassland birds, and described a Natural Resources Conservation Service program designed to improve wildlife habitat.

The bobwhite quail is considered an edge species and seeks habitat where cropland intersects with woodlands, pastures and old fields. Urban sprawl and modern farming methods have eliminated much of the birds’ natural habitat.

Virginia is one of the eight states where the NCRS is working with landowners to re-establish habitat for bobwhite quail and other grassland birds. The Working Lands for Wildlife program provides technical and financial assistance to implement conservation practices while maintaining or improving livestock production on their lands.

Bryan said the focus of the program is to help restore native grasses to the agricultural landscape, benefitting cattle farmers and wildlife. Replacing the non-native grasses with native forage provides food and habitat for wildlife, he said, and improves cattle production as well as soil health and water quality.

Farmers interested in the program should contact their local NRCS office for an application.

Gabriel Pent, a ruminant livestock systems specialist at the Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center, explained the benefits of using annual grasses to renovate perennial pastures.

Adding annual grasses helps to slow and reduce soil erosion, soil compaction and prevent weed infestation, Pent said. Annuals are particularly useful in covering high-traffic areas such as gateways, feed and water areas, and sacrifice lots.

Annual ryegrass and crabgrass are fast-growing grasses that can cover bare areas. Cow peas provide heat-tolerant forage while sorghum Sudangrass is a fast-growing, heat-tolerant forage that also helps to push out weeds.

Weed control in pastures and hayfields is an important part of forage management. Kara Pittman of Virginia Tech explained how annual plants are beneficial for controlling weeds.

Weed control with herbicide in mixed grass/legume pasture isn’t practical as repeated use of broadleaf herbicides will kill legumes. She said that herbicide is most effective if applied before reseeding.

Pittman pointed out the benefits of adding fast-growing annuals to pasture to fill in and push out weeds. As biomass increases, the level of weed suppression also increases.

Becca Pizmoht is a freelance writer in central Virginia