Bob Speck, St. Lawrence, S.D., says he's triple cropping with native grasses.
He planted 40 acres to switchgrass and 12 acres to big bluestem in 2009 and now harvests seed and hay. The third crop is wildlife. The habitat attracts so many pheasants and deer that one person once joked that there are no wildlife on other farms in his area because they are all over in Speck's switchgrass.
"It's triple cropping -- seed, hay and wildlife," Speck says.
Speck expects the net return over the 10- to 15-year life of the stand to be greater than the net return from corn, soybeans and wheat over the same period.
The profit depends, of course, on the prices and yields of the grain, hay and grass seed. "But I expect switchgrass will at least be as competitive," Speck says.
Switchgrass is perennial native prairie grass. There is no annual seed or planting cost and the stand doesn't have to be sprayed for weeds or fertilized every year. Switchgrass takes two or three years to become established, however.
"My expenses this year will only be harvesting and taxes," he says.
Speck planted the native prairie grasses along part of Turtle Creek, which runs through his family's farm near St. Lawrence, S.D. The field' soil is suitable for corn, soybeans and wheat but the shape of the field is irregular and would take a lot of extra time to farm.
"I thought the grass would make better use of the land," Speck says. "I haven't had to sacrifice much income and it has produced a lot of wildlife."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paid for the switchgrass seed that Speck planted. He bought South Dakota foundation seed so that he could sell certified seed. The big bluestem was paid for by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service through the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.
Speck, a former NRCS employee and current Hand County Conservation District supervisor, plans to try planting field peas in the switchgrass this spring. Young pheasants will like the insects that will attracted to the field peas during the growing season, he says. In the fall, the dried peas that fall to the ground will be good food for pheasants.
"There are a lot of pheasants and deer here," Speck says. In February, he was hauling in bales that he had used for deer blinds during hunting season and saw at least 30-40 deer, "and I was not really looking for deer," Speck says. "I also see a lot of pheasants here too…it's nothing to see 25 to 50 birds around my grass fields."
If you are interested in growing switchgrass or big bluestem and hope to make money by selling seed and hay, Speck advises that you find a market for the seed first. Then find someone to harvest the seed and plant the grass for you. Some specialized equipment and knowledge is needed.
"It's best to work backward from marketing to planting," Speck says.