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Programs help diversify forage portfolios

Landry Jones Conservation Grazing SpecialistLandry Jones
Conservation Grazing Specialist

We are taught as young adults to diversify risk to reduce exposure to catastrophic loss. For the stock market, that might mean investing in stocks that bring a quicker return as well as investing in options that are more secure but have a longer return on investment. For agriculture, that might mean early planting a percentage of acres in soybeans to try to capture a large yield but also planting the remaining acres at a traditional time to help ensure a successful crop. It may be as simple as not stacking all your hay in one barn for risk of a fire.

With this inherit knowledge of trying to reduce risk, why do we not do the same with our forages? For most producers, we put all our eggs in one basket—the cool-season grass basket. As their name implies, cool-season grasses grow well in the spring and fall, but that leaves out summer, when we still need forage production.

Thankfully, there are several great forage options that thrive in warmer weather. Some of these forages are introduced species that can grow very well in certain parts of Missouri and produce high-quality forage. Some are forages that have adapted to Missouri’s climate and soil over centuries. Collectively, these highly productive adapted grasses are known as native warm-season forages.

Using native grasses for livestock is nothing new. Producers in the Flint Hills of Kansas have been raising cattle on native range for centuries. What is new in Missouri is the increased effort by state government agencies and non-governmental organizations to promote, educate and assist producers with establishing and managing native grasses. The most notable program is the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Native Forage Initiative (NFI). This program was created in 2022 when the southern part of Missouri was in severe drought, and NRCS officials realized producer assistance programs needed smoother, quicker paths to implementation to be effective. Mainly, they wanted to reduce the time it took for producer contracts to be approved and the “lag time” to get work “on the ground” completed so that producers could get a native grass stand as soon as possible. The other goal was to have a program that focused solely on forage production.

“Planting native warm-season grasses is a big investment, but there has never been a better time.”

The NFI program is just this. It was developed to make farms more resilient and productive. Along with the NFI, the Missouri Department of Conservation also pledged its support by adding Supplemental Incentive Payments (SIP) in select geographies across the state.

If you have explored establishing native grasses, you realize it is not a cheap endeavor. The University of Missouri has calculated the return on investment, and most reports show it takes four to five years to return that field to profitability. With financial assistance from the NFI and SIP programs, the return on investment is less than one year.

Due to the accessibility of and acceptance into this program, as well as financial assistance tied to the practices, there has been a record amount of interest from producers to diversify their forages with native grasses. In fiscal year 2023, more than $6.5 million dollars and 14,000 acres were obligated to be converted to native grass. Also, due to the increased interest, the program sign-up deadline has been extended to May 31 of this year.

NRCS and MDC are not the only agencies committed to making farms more resilient and profitable with native grasses. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, through Soil and Water Conservation Districts, now has a program that provides cost-share assistance for converting cool-season forages to native warm-season grasses in a new or existing grazing system.

Planting native warm-season grasses is a big investment, but there has never been a better time. These agencies are putting their money where their mouths are and making it very affordable to establish these grasses and reduce the economic risk to producers. Producers who are interested or have questions about how native grasses can fit into their operation can contact their local USDA office or me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

CLICK TO READ MORE FROM THE 2024 MAY ISSUE OF TODAY'S FARMER MAGAZINE.

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