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Pat Keyser stands in a field of native grasses
READY TO GRAZE: University of Tennessee professor Pat Keyser stands in a field of native grasses that extend to his hip. He says this is the ideal height to turn in cattle to graze.

The right height for grazing native grass? Hip to boot

Here are nine more tips to keep native pastures lush all summer.

“If you always keep your native grass stand from top of the boot to the hip, you will never go wrong,” Pat Keyser says.

Keyser, a professor at the University of Tennessee and director of its Center for Native Grasslands Management, spoke to a group of 100 farmers and ranchers gathered at Cope Farms near Truxton, Mo.

Montgomery County farmer Harry Cope is transitioning fescue pasture into native grass mixes. Both Keyser and Cope say it takes grazing management to keep stands flourishing through the summer when cattle producers need forage the most.

“If you graze it down to the nubbin,” Keyser says, “there is nothing to grow grass.” Keeping the grasses at heights ranging from 12 to 14 inches on the low end — or boot stage — to 30 to 32 inches on the tall end — or hip stage — is the proper height for forage production.

yellow fox sedge native grass
RIGHT STUFF: This yellow fox sedge is an ideal native grass for a grazing system. It is a perennial plant reaching up to 3 feet tall, forming tight tufts of leaves and flowering culms.

Keyser offers nine other areas cattle producers need to pay attention to in terms of native grass grazing management:

  1. Growth point. In native grasses, this is located higher on the stem, anywhere from 6 to 8 inches off the ground. Grazing at or below that point inhibits the plant's ability to rebound quickly.
  2. Tiller count. How many tillers are on a plant can determine stress levels. Natives such as indiangrass grow in bunches. From one single plant, there are as many as 40 tillers. “If we see plants down to one, two, three or even five tillers, it means they are stressed out,” Keyser says. “That is an indication to change grazing management practices.”
  3. Maintain canopy. Natives do well with a good canopy. If you persistently graze down, you are going to weaken the plant and open the canopy. That space fills up with weeds you may not want such as cocklebur, pigweed or horse nettle, Keyser says.
  4. Stocking rate. This varies based on forage. Cope grazed 57 head on 3 acres for three days. “Look at your canopy and days on acres,” Keyser says. “This will give you an idea of increasing or decreasing either stocking rate or time on pasture.”
  5. Rest it. In Oklahoma, Keyser tells producers to let native stands rest anywhere from four to six weeks. Cope rests some areas for 71 days. Others had three weeks of recovery. He manages based on canopy height and rainfall.
  6. Grazing practices. Keyser says you can open a native pasture to cattle May 15 and take them off Sept. 15, but only if you keep the stand between boot and hip. You can maintain that height requirement through rotational grazing or management intensive grazing.
  7. Limit seed heads. Allowing natives to become real stemmy and go to seed will penalize animal performance. “Your pounds per acre are going to go down,” Keyser says. One caveat is if the pasture is grazed too low. Allowing it to go seed will replenish the stand, he adds, but keep cattle off to allow for regrowth.
  8. Too much forage. In rainy years where there is more forage than cattle, consider cutting for hay or baleage.
  9. Winter pasture. In Tennessee, cattle graze on native prairie grass stalk during winter months. While it is not ideal, it is a cheaper option than high-priced hay, Keyser says. Producers supplement cattle on native grass with 2 pounds per day of dried distillers grain or fish meal.

“I’ve always heard these native grasses are hard to manage,” Keyser says. “I’ve been doing it for years. You don’t need to be a great forage manager; you just have to pay attention.”

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