First posted on 09-06-2012
Landowners who planted warm season grasses have weathered the state’s drought better than those who haven’t. Native warm season grasses can be the long-term solution to filling the summer forage gap that often happens here in Arkansas.
According to David Long, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission private lands supervisor, there are some options available to landowners. “Under the Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-share programs like the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, Environmental Quality Incentive Program and AGFC private lands programs, there have been thousands of acres of natives planted over the past 10 years that are all alive and growing very well during one of the worst droughts in Arkansas history,” Long says.
While native forages require a little extra effort and cost to establish up front, these low-input perennial grasses provide a number of benefits including high yields (up to four tons per acre), high quality forage, low input cost and exceptional drought tolerance and are long lasting-- all qualities that ranchers are looking for, Long explained. “Given our record of severe drought this year and in recent years, the opportunity is perfect for ranchers to drought proof pastures with natives and avoid extensive summer pasture losses in the future as occurred this summer,” he said.
With most forecasters predicting continued years of drought, there is an excellent alternative for ranchers to drought proof their warm season pastures. “Landowners can plant natives and avoid these disastrous losses of quality forage in the future and cost-share opportunities from NRCS programs in the future will be available to make this transition,” Long said.
Native warm season grasses includes species such as little bluestem, big bluestem, Indiangrass, Gamma grass and Switch grass. They are long lived, drought tolerate with roots growing 8 to 10 feet and deeper, staying in soil moisture during the most severe drought and provide high quality forage for livestock with a side benefit of providing wildlife habitat. With most of the estimated four million acres of introduced forage species like Bermuda grass and fescue dead as a result of this year’s severe drought, ranchers have a very viable alternative to consider in native grasses.
The AGFC has long promoted the planting of native grasses for not only their wildlife benefits, but also for this use as very high quality pasture grasses for ranchers, Long said. “We can have our cake and eat it too by using natives in pasture operations. Think of native forages as drought insurance without making yearly premium payments. Replanting natives where this year’s dead pastures occurred, can result in a force multiplier for ranchers to achieve protection against future losses due to drought conditions,” he explained. “Establishing and maintaining native pastures can offer unequaled forage dividends and peace of mind for ranchers,” Long added. Benefits include not only high quality forage performance but benefits to the soil, water, fish and wildlife resources are also realized.
Natives offer a huge cost-benefit-ratio for the little extra investment since most of these pastures should not experience mortality during future droughts. “The only grasses currently alive and thriving over much of Arkansas are natives,” Long noted.
When the economics of input costs are figured in, natives are very cost effective in providing quality forage when compared to Bermuda grass. According to a University of Tennessee Agricultural Research study, using January 2011 prices and production recommendations for fertilizer and herbicides, they determined annual production costs per acre were $239.42 for Big Bluestem/Indiangrass and $452.78 for Bermuda grass. Annual production costs for native pastures are almost half that of Bermuda grass pastures,” Long explained. “Why? Native grasses can be produced with far less fertilizer inputs. Current recommended nitrogen rates for Big Bluestem/Indiangrass are 60 pounds per acre for hay or pasture. The report stated nitrogen costs for Bermuda grass pastures are 2-4 times greater than the Big Bluestem/Indiangrass pastures. That is a huge saving of input cost when using natives,” he said.
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