Warm-Season Grasses Have Place on Delmarva

1/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

Cattle Producers Learn Ways to Heal Drought-Damaged Pastures

HARRINGTON, Del. — Some common sense techniques can help limit drought damage to pastures.

That was one of the main themes of a beef cattle seminar held during Delaware Ag Week in Harrington. The annual five-day event included sessions on direct marketing, small ruminants, forestry, vegetable marketing, poultry and other topics.

It's a week for local farmers and producers to meet, greet and hear the latest in techniques and challenges facing the agricultural industry, long a backbone of the Delaware economy.

The Wednesday, Jan.16, session was intended for beef cattle producers. Most of the session, with the exception of a talk on better ways to cull herds, dealt with drought-damaged pasture land and whether or not there is a place for warm-season grasses in Delaware.

Susan Garey, an animal science Extension agent with the University of Delaware, said drought years "are really starting to take their toll" on Delaware pasture land.

While New Castle County has fared somewhat better during the last two years of drought, Delaware's two lower counties have had a rougher time, she said.

She urged farmers to maintain a proper pH for their pastures and to not add large amounts of lime at one time. Instead, she said more regular applications of smaller quantities of lime work better.

She also said farmers may want to add more nitrogen in the fall, instead of traditionally adding a larger amount in the spring, when the plants will get a growth burst anyway. Fall application will help plants to store energy in the roots, she said.

Maintaining fertility and pH helps pastures by reducing the stress on plants that may already be stressed by drought. By reducing the amount of stress on drought-damaged lands, pastures will recover more quickly. "Lower pH = slower to recover," according to Garey’s presentation.

Rarely on Delmarva will drought alone kill pasture land, she told the group.

Garey told the audience to avoid feeding hay on damaged pasture areas. Instead, she said, cattle should be fed in a feedlot or some other area. The reason is that hay may contain weed seeds, which can further damage an already stressed pasture area.

Farmers should evaluate their land for the number of weeds, species present, the amount of ground coverage, erosion and other issues. She said pastures are constantly changing. "They are very dynamic things."

She suggested the addition of legumes may help to thicken vegetation and said warm-season grasses may have a place in Delaware pasture lands.

Such warm-season grasses as big bluestem, indiangrass, Bermuda grass, gamagrass and switchgrass, tend to have a growth spurt in summer when most Delaware pasture grasses are in the midst of a summer slump.

Warm-season grasses can be tough to establish, but may be worth using as an addition to cold-season grasses, which are more traditional on Delmarva.

Garey urged farmers to use rotational grazing and to try to wait four weeks after a rainfall before grazing the land in order to better protect the pasture. "Resist the temptation," she said.

She said the temptation to turn livestock out into vulnerable pasture can be powerful. But she urged farmers to think of the long term and not damage the pasture for a few days or weeks of rich forage.

"Keep long term health of the stand in mind and remember how much time, money and energy goes into establishing a permanent pasture," Garey said.

Ted Wycall, owner of Greenbranch Organic Farm in Salisbury, Md., urged farmers to seriously consider some warm-season grass mixtures. A mix of cold- and warm-season grasses can help to provide a "continuous chain of forage," he said. "To have optimum forage, you need a mix."

Wycall grows grass-finished beef, as well as free-range eggs, vegetables and free-range pork.

His suggestion for pasture land was one third fescue, one third cool-season perennials and one third warm-season grasses. He prefers gamagrass and alfalfa as warm-season perennials. He also likes a mixture of sorghum and sudangrass for pasture land.

Wycall said farmers should match the land with the season and the type of forage when deciding what to plant.

Both Garey and Wycall urged farmers to be careful with their selection of warm-season grasses, because some grasses can cause prussic acid problems when grazed. Other grasses, like switchgrass and foxtail millet, can cause potential health problems for horses.

Wycall also strongly urged farmers to move their livestock frequently. Wycall tries to move his cattle daily with a system of polywire and temporary fencing to allow the pasture to recover quickly and to ensure that his cattle always have good forage. That also cuts down on flies, he said.

With the temporary fencing, he said it only takes a few minutes a day to move his small herd.

Regular grazing and then moving livestock to allow the grasses to re-grow will cause the grazed grass roots to slough off, he said.

Wycall said that those sloughed-off roots caused by centuries of grazing by bison helped to build the Midwestern topsoil. "That's why the topsoil in Iowa is 6 feet deep," he said.

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