Sponsored By
Missouri Ruralist logo

Time to add warm-season grasses to your farmTime to add warm-season grasses to your farm

Learn a lesson from drought: Plant warm-season grasses and stop chasing livestock feed in the future.

August 18, 2023

4 Min Read
Sheep grazing in grass
GRAZE ON: Katahdin sheep graze indiangrass, big bluestem and a little bluestem mix during a D3 drought in Truxton, Mo. Rusty Lee

by Julie Harker

The drought in Missouri has taken a toll on cool-season grasses, diminishing forage for cattle and other livestock.

“Native warm-season grasses are the ideal forage for summer during the production slump of cool-season grasses due to heat, especially in a drought,” says Rusty Lee, University of Missouri Extension agronomy field specialist.

Lee says now is a teachable moment. While they take a year for establishment, warm-season grasses can be lightly grazed in year two — and fully grazed in year three and beyond.

“When I ask them, producers say they want high forage yields, which warm-season grasses provide in spades,” he says. “They want forage growth without the risk of toxins, such as fescue toxicosis in cattle. They want a long stand life, not having to replant every three to five years. They want animal performance, and they want a system that is cost-effective. Warm-season grasses check all those boxes.”

Warm-season grasses do not need to be a wholesale replacement of cool-season grasses in pastures, but Lee encourages producers to try it for the many benefits. Those who have, he adds, like it and increased warm-season grass acres on their farms.

Plan ahead

Warm-season grasses get a bad rap because they take one to two years to establish, Lee says.

He recommends allocating one year, and depending on your pastures, do dormant winter-seeding or spring-seeding.

“Embrace herbicide usage to help control the old cool-season grass stand,” Lee notes. “Warm-season grasses are very tough and resilient, but the roots grow first, and weeds tend to shade them out. The seedlings, at first, are weak. The goal is to leave the pasture alone for the first year after planting and not graze it.”

To prepare:

  • Graze your cool-season grasses close this fall.

  • Spray with a glyphosate herbicide before it's dormant — generally in October.

  • Drill seed in the spring.

  • Expect a four-week window for emergence. Before emergence, weeds should be controlled with an additional application of glyphosate.

Lee recommends planting a mix of indiangrass, big blue and little bluestem — heavier on the big blue. “These three species have tolerance to an additional herbicide, imazapic, that when tank-mixed with the spring glyphosate application gives some residual weed control.”

The seed and your effort are valuable, so take the time to understand the drill settings for planting depths and seeding-rate calibrations to ensure a successful stand.

Weed control, seeding depth and seeding rate are the three most common factors determining success or failure, Lee says.

Use of established warm-season grasses depends on the species. They’ll be at their peak in late May through early September, then dormant after a winter freeze. Note that farmers can also broadcast the seed in winter dormancy or no-till drill it.

Economics of warm-season grasses

When planting warm-season grasses in the spring, remember to make the second application of glyphosate after the cool-season grasses green up, then drill warm-season grasses at the end of April to early May.

“Keep in mind, WSG seed is expensive — up to $300 an acre,” Lee says. Warm-season grass seed availability varies as demand consumes supply. “So, get your seed order placed now,” Lee adds.

There is an establishment cost of not grazing during the first year, but subsequent years’ production will more than make up for it, Lee stresses.

Lee recommends soil testing now in time for fall to determine what fertility amendments are required. If lime additions are necessary, an application this fall will fit perfectly with seeding the following spring.

Cost share available

There are several cost-share programs available through the Missouri Department of Conservation, Soil & Water Conservation Districts and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“Each agency’s programs are different, and some can fit producers needs better than others,” says Rachel Hopkins, MU Extension ag business specialist. “Contact your local NRCS-SWCD office to find out about their cost-share programs for native forages. For programs offered by MDC, contact your local private lands conservationist. Before choosing a specific program, producers should evaluate the offerings to find one that best fits their needs.”

Each program has pros and cons. “Farmers can think about this as an opportunity to build resilience in their forage program,” Hopkins adds. “Native warm-season forages grow well during the peak of summer heat. Many people will be renovating pastures at considerable expense. The cost-share programs incentivize farmers to try something new in their operation.”

Harker is a news strategist for the University of Missouri Extension. She writes from Columbia, Mo.

Read more about:

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like