When it comes to keeping cows fat and happy, the newest available science shows integrating native grasses into grazing lands is a good option for agricultural producers.
A literature review conducted by the University of Tennessee and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found strong evidence that using native warm-season grasses caused steers to gain more weight per day and yield more beef per acre, compared with non-native grasses such as tall fescue.
Native versus non-native grasses
Native grasses such as switchgrass, big bluestem, Eastern gamma, and Indiangrass are heat- and drought-tolerant. They're native to the eastern United States, and they're good alternatives to introduced grasses such as tall fescue and bermudagrass.
Tall fescue grows slowly over the summer. It can be infected by an endophyte that is toxic to cattle and reduces growth and reproductive success. One potential solution to this "summer slump" in quality forage is augmenting grazing systems to include native warm-season grasses.
The latest Science to Solutions report from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, titled "Economic and Production Performance of Grazing Native Grasses in the Fescue Belt," highlighted how native warm-season grasses provide quality forage for livestock.
For example, average daily growth for steers grazing switchgrass during the summer was 66 percent greater than steers grazing tall fescue and bermudagrass, both non-natives.
Additionally, the report highlighted how steers performed in different types of pastures. Steers grazing:
• Eastern gamma -- gained 1.91 pounds per day with a total beef yield of 671 pounds per acre;
• Switchgrass -- gained 2 pounds per day with a total beef yield of 749 pounds per acre;
• Big bluestem -- gained 2.38 pounds per day with a total beef yield of 653 pounds per acre; and
• Combination of tall fescue and bermudagrass -- gained 1.6 pounds per day with total beef yield of 513 pounds per acre.
The report also has information on expected beef yield and net returns as well as the costs of grazing cattle on native warm-season grass.
The report highlighted that while producers need to make an investment to establish native grasses, the initial savings of a system with annuals was offset by the management costs of machinery and fertilizers.
"The science has continued to show that natives have a lower cost of production in the long-run," said Chris Boyer, an associate professor with the University of Tennessee's department of agricultural and resource economics.
Native warm-season grasses also provide critical habitat for wildlife as they provide food and cover for northern bobwhite quail and other ground-nesting birds.
The bobwhite has seen its population dip by more than 80 percent across large sections of its range during the past 60 years.
"By using warm-season grasses, producers can increase grazing days, reduce their reliance on more costly hay and feed, improve tall fescue pastures by letting them rest during the summer -- all while helping wildlife species," said Bridgett Costanzo, with Natural Resource Conservation Service's Working Lands for Wildlife partnership.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service provides technical and financial assistance to help producers integrate native warm-season grasses into their grazing systems.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and other Farm Bill programs help producers cover part of the costs for implementing conservation practices like prescribed grazing, brush management, biomass and forage planting, and fencing.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service accepts applications for conservation programs on a continuous basis.
Producers interested in assistance are encouraged to contact their local USDA service center.