Warm Season Grass
By: Carl C. Stafford, Senior Extension Agent
Warm season grasses were growing naturally across Virginia at the time the first settlers arrived and you can still find these native grasses today along roadsides and in isolated, unmanaged open spaces. In the old days, meadows and open spaces between the old growth forests supported these important native grass plants including Blue Stem, Switch grass and Indian grass. They were part of the food supply for large grazing animals as well as habitat for a whole host of smaller mammals and birds. Unfortunately these native grasses were forced out continuously grazing livestock.
Ongoing research in Virginia since the first energy crisis in the 70’s began investigating the role of warm season grasses as a source of bio-mass – basically to determine how many tons can be produced per acre. This line of study is gaining new appreciation today as scientists pursue alternative and renewable fuels and new sources of income for farmers. Warm season grasses will produce significant tonnage on limited rainfall and with minimal fertilizer inputs and could hold the answer to some energy questions.
The value of warm season grasses to wildlife has always been present and helps us understand the continuing emphasis by private groups, state and federal agencies on this important use. Some producers have successfully established warm season grasses to enhance wildlife food and cover. Birds of all kinds benefit from having warm season grasses available for nesting, food and cover. I am hearing quail calls now because of habitat provided by my neighbors Conservation Reserve Program land. Government cost share programs are available to make establishment of warm season grasses more affordable. Water conservation is also an added benefit from these programs. Our government conservation agencies install plantings as buffer strips alongside streams, waterways or near surface water impoundments.
Readers know from other articles that I have a particular interest in grazing livestock. The more days of the year you can graze your animals the more they are working for you and your bottom line. Warm season grasses provide an abundant supply of forage during a time of year when we need it. They actually grow better during the hotter day, longer days of summer. Agronomists suggest having 10% of your pasture devoted to some type of warm season grass to help you graze through the summer months. We can not count on the kind of grass growing conditions we had this summer, but we can count on warm season grass to grow during the most difficult summer conditions that we can expect. When you combine these many values, native warm season grass could have more potential uses and benefits than any other type of grass available.
Here in Virginia, Ben Tracy is our warm season grass specialist and in Tennessee, Pat Keyser is the point man on this subject. The USDA NRCS is making warm season grass a special emphasis for its benefits both to wildlife but also to grazing livestock. A new program: “Working lands for Wildlife” gives emphasis for the use of warm season grasses by both grazing livestock and wildlife. Specialists now believe these two uses can co-exist.