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Is USDA’s Nod to Native Grass Research Hopeful Sign for Wildlife, Producers, Consumers?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Native grasses on right, exotics on left during drought

The 25 state wildlife management agencies, various conservation groups and research institutes that together comprise the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) areexpressing hope that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) newly-announced research on native grasses as part of drought risk management will lead to changes in the agency’s forage subsidy policies.

USDA announced 13 Conservation Innovation Grants for 2013 in April, and two of the grants link native, warm-season grasses to drought management solutions for livestock producers.  NBCI Director Don McKenzie says that could be significant because for decades USDA subsidies on millions of acres of private pasturelands have emphasized aggressive, non-native grasses that offer little habitat for wildlife and are vulnerable to drought.  Convincing USDA to adopt native, warm-season grasses as a replacement for up to a third of those subsidized acres is a major NBCI objective because of the positive impact on bobwhite quail and other wildlife, as well as producers — and consumers who end up paying higher prices for beef.

“USDA’s forage subsidy policies are one of the main causes of bobwhite quail decline rangewide,” said NBCI Director Don McKenzie, “as well as the decline of an entire suite of grassland songbirds. NBCI is working with USDA and a range of wildlife and conservation organizations to promote policies that benefit both producers and wildlife.”

The issue came into sharper focus in 2011-2012 as the drought left livestock producers across the country’s midsection with pastures full of drought-stricken cool-season exotics and no way to feed their herds. NBCI responded with a coalition of 30 conservation groups urging the USDA to shift a portion of their subsidies toward replanting drought-stricken pastures in drought-tolerant native forage grasses instead of the traditional exotics.

“If native grasses had been a substantial part of the agricultural mix we wouldn’t have seen so many producers in so much trouble during the drought,” said McKenzie, “… and we would have seen more quail and grassland songbirds. And taxpayers would not have to foot such a large bill for re-planting the same pastures that will again die during the next drought.”

One USDA grant of $398,714 went to a team of researchers at the University of Tennessee that included the Center for Native Grasslands Management and animal and plant scientists to study the integration of native, warm-season grasses in the “cow-calf production area” of Tennessee/Arkansas/Kentucky. The objective is to deliver “a comprehensive and transformative approach to forage production,” … (and to) “make a substantial impact on their ability to respond to droughts over the long-term.”  Grazing demonstrations will include a variety of native, warm-season grasses.

A second USDA grant of $400,153 went to Mississippi State University to demonstrate the drought mitigation impacts of native grasses utilized in both grazing systems and confined feeding operations for beef cattle compared with cool season forages.

Meanwhile, studies have already shown that native, warm-season forage grasses produce competitive amounts of hay per acre compared with the exotics, cost far less per acre to grow once established because of reduced fertilizer requirements, are longer-lived (lasting 15-20 years or more with proper management), that livestock actually prefer the native grasses over the exotics, and that the natives are extremely drought resistant.

Recently, the Arkansas Farm Bureau recently advised its membership to consider incorporating native, warm-season grasses as forage in the cover story of a recent issue of Arkansas Agriculture magazine. In addition, the Texas AgriLife Extension has published several works on establishing and managing native grasses in the Lone Star State, and several state wildlife agencies, including the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have pages on their websites devoted to the subject.   

Earlier this month, even the New York Times touched on the subject when reporting on Texas ranchers’ struggle with drought impacts. However, one interviewee was Texas rancher Gary Price … who has continued his profitability through the 2011-2012 drought as his cows grazed on the native grasses he restored on his ranch after seeing how resilient they were. 

“Integrating native, warm-season grasses into livestock operations is simply a commonsense approach that’s good for producers, good for wildlife, good for consumers and good for taxpayers,” said McKenzie.