Break the summer slump with native grasses

Written by Matt Hill on .

Tall fescue covers more than 17 million acres in Missouri and has been the cornerstone forage for beef cattle production since the Kentucky 31 variety was released in the mid-1940s—and for good reason. Fescue sod reduces erosion on hilly pastures, tolerates intensive grazing and produces good-quality forage in the spring, fall and even part of the winter if properly managed.

However, fescue presents two main challenges to cattle producers: very little growth when weather gets hot and dry and the well-documented fungal endophyte that produces alkaloid compounds that are toxic to livestock. The heat of the summer along with concentrated amounts of the alkaloids in fescue stems and seed heads intensify the negative impact. These effects include increased body temperature, increased respiratory rate, low weight gain and reproductive problems, often referred to as the summer slump.

What you need is a summer slump buster. You can try adding diversity to fescue pastures to dilute the toxic effects, manage it for reduced endophyte concentrations or supplement with a grain-based feed. But the best way to get full performance potential out of your cattle is grazing them on non-toxic, warm-season forages in the summer.

A great choice is a mixture of native warm-season grasses such as switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, Indian grass and eastern gammagrass. Using a more diverse mix—including native cool-season grasses, legumes, and wildflowers—provides even more benefits but requires more careful management.

These native forages are a subset of the plants that were once present in grasslands across much of Missouri, which means they are adapted to grow well in our soils and climate. In addition to being free of toxic alkaloids, they bring some other great benefits to a grazing program.

During the summer when fescue shuts down, native grasses will produce up to 4 tons per acre of forage. The quality of warm-season grass forage is best early in the summer and decreases as it matures, so it’s best to adjust the stock density and duration to keep the plants vegetative without grazing them too short. During the summer grazing season, steers and heifers can be expected to gain between 2 and 2.5 pounds per day on native grass pastures. Grazing cow/calf pairs on native grasses instead of endophyte-infected fescue can increase milk production and weaning weights.

The metabolism of native warm-season grasses is different from cool-season grasses such as fescue. This allows them to better handle summer dry spells and droughty soils because they are more water-efficient. Native grasses also have remarkable rooting depths, as much as 10 to 12 feet. Such deep roots allow these drought-hearty species to find water not available to shallower-rooted grasses such as fescue.

In addition to being a superior summer forage, native warm-season grasses are also great for increasing infiltration rates, stopping erosion, providing buffers along streams and creating wildlife habitat. For decades, biologists have been planting native grasses on conservation areas and providing technical assistance for private landowners who want those benefits on their property. As a result, Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Quail Forever and other agencies and organizations are available to provide expertise on selecting, establishing and managing native grasses.  

Getting more native grasses on Missouri farms and ranches for more efficient livestock production and natural resource benefits is a top priority for all conservation partners, and they are putting their money where their mouth is. There are numerous cost-share programs that will cover most of the cost to convert existing vegetation to native grasses. To learn more about how native grasses can benefit you, visit with the experts at your local USDA Service Center. Your local MFA will also have everything you need to establish native grasses.

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