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Corn+Soybean Digest

Native Grass Holds Soil

When Carl Bergman decided to install contour buffer strips on a highly erosive field, he needed a big-rooted grass that would persist for many years without maintenance.

He found those characteristics and more in eastern gamagrass, a native warm-season species.

Bergman, a Hillsboro, IL, corn and soybean grower, plants no-till beans but usually makes one tillage pass ahead of corn planting on fields that aren't erosive. Some of his land has erosion potential, and one 80-acre field is especially troublesome. It has a 7-8 degree slope and six rills (natural drainage channels) where water flows after heavy rains.

He learned about eastern gamagrass through his work on the Montgomery County Natural Resources Conservation Service board.

"It has a heck of a root system," says Bergman. "You can't pull it out, even in the first year."

Once established, he says it grows vigorously when moisture is sufficient and is drought-tolerant, but can't stand frequent cutting. A big benefit for him: It's resistant to herbicides used on corn and soybeans.

"You can spray right across it," he says. "If it starts working out into the field and you want to spray the borders, the only way you can kill it is with Roundup in the fall."

Three years ago, Bergman planted the grass in 18'-wide strips across the field, with 120' of space between. He used his no-till grain drill with every other flute plugged, giving him 15" rows.

The gamagrass seed was propagated at a U.S. government-operated native-grass nursery at Elsberry, MO, and supplied to Bergman by Shepherd Farm, Inc., Clifton Hill, MO.

First, though, the seed had to go through wet scarification, a soaking process that softens its hard shell to enhance germination. The scarified seed was sent to Bergman via UPS. Then he had to keep it refrigerated and plant it within a few days.

He chose a good year to seed the grass. Weather conditions were ideal, and thick stands were established in all the strips.

After three years, Bergman says he's satisfied with the grass' soil-saving capacity.

"We wanted the strips to hold back enough soil to where they built up a natural berm. We wanted them to act as leaky dams and cause a dropout of sediment."

That's happening, and water is beginning to pond on the high side of each strip. To prevent it, he's running drainage tile down the center of each rill.

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