Native grasses provide a dependable source of nutrition for livestock during periods of extreme heat and drought; enhance wildlife habitat; and improve soil health.
CCE Essex hosted a presentation and discussion with Dr. Patrick Keyser, Author of Native Grass Forages for the Eastern U.S. covering how native forages can benefit livestock farm operations and the environment. Dr. Keyser shared his findings regarding best practices for successful establishment as well as recommendations for management, including grazing and hay production. Dr. Keyser also shared case studies showing how native grasses can reduce input costs, maintenance labor, and boost yields over time.
By establishing native warm season grasses in some fields, and also keeping some cool season grass pastures, livestock and hay producers can extend growing seasons significantly, diversify production, and gain resilience against extreme weather events.
The video is broken up into chapters, each with a presentation followed by a short Q&A from the audience: "Why Native Grasses"; "Establishing Native Grass Forages"; "Managing Native Grass Forages"; and "Wildlife Benefits of Native Grass Forages."
Native Warm Season Grasses at Northern Latitudes
For those of you who wonder if native "warm season" grasses will do well at our northern latitude, Dr. Keyser specifically mentions research on these grasses starting at 27:50 at the video. Research shows that C4 native grasses historically dominated zones 4b and to 45° latitude. Also, because at northern latitudes we have longer days and more daylight/growing hours in the summer, one research study found that yields were higher at higher latitudes for warm season grasses.
Native Grasses, Hay Production, and Endangered Birds
While the video focuses on grazing, native warm season grasses are also excellent for hay. They can produce more yield with fewer harvests (ie less cost, soil compaction, etc). Also, while common cool season grasses need to be harvested early for quality hay, warm season grasses produce seed later in the year, thus allowing for quality hay at a later harvest date. This is imperative for solving a significant environmental issue: native grassland bird species populations are declining rapidly. Many populations are down 70-90% over just the last 50 years and are continuing to steadily decline. Quality hay production with cool season grasses does not allow for native grassland birds to reproduce. However, quality hay from native warm season grasses can be harvested after grassland birds nest and the baby birds fledge! A win-win for farmers and the endangered birds!
Curious? Read Dr. Keyser's book, linked below! It covers every topic, from establishment strategies (organic and conventional) to management to economics to wildlife benefits.
Sourcing seed: Many native seed companies are listed at resources linked below and a comprehensive listing is included in Dr. Keyser's book.
Funding: Because establishing native grasslands is a climate resilient, environmentally-friendly practice, with the potential to create greater economic resiliency for farms as well as support critically endangered species, the costs of establishment may be competitive for grant funding through your local Soil and Water and/or NRCS office. Other funding for climate-smart projects may also be available. Contact Jenna Walczak, Ag Climate Resiliency Specialist with CCE Harvest NY for more support on funding options.
Sterile seedbed: As Dr. Keyser explains thoroughly in his book, a sterile seedbed is necessary for your native grassland to successfully establish. Herbicides as well as repeated tillage (the organic option for large acreage) are two methods explained in the book. However, if you wish to convert smaller acreage tracts to start/experiment, you can consider tarping with large silage tarps, held down with sand bags. Cornell Small Farms has extensive research on tarping in our region.
Planting: Essex County Soil and Water has two no-till seed drills (5' and 12' options) which are equipped with the necessary seed boxes to drill native seeds.
Resources about Native Warm Season Grasses:
Patrick Keyser's book: Native Warm Season Grasses for the Eastern U.S. A must-read! The book can be downloaded for free, or a paper copy can be ordered.
Podcast about native warm season
Collaboration between Round the Bend Farm and Massachusetts Audubon Society: https://roundthebendfarm.org/2018/02/15/3624/
Last updated August 18, 2023