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Native Grass Gazette: Workshops and Debunking Myths

Working with Dr. Pat Keyser, Center for Native Grasslands Management (CNGM), and a host of local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff, I recently finished conducting the first two Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) in-service training workshops, one in Missouri and the other in Kentucky. The workshops are to provide support and training for the WLFW Bobwhite in Grasslands project. We cover some bobwhite habitat basics but really immerse participants into the reasons for using native forages, establishment and grazing management, finally integrating grazing management with grassland wildlife. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) and CNGM are under contract with NRCS to conduct seven or more (depending on how far the money goes) of these workshops in the Bobwhite in Grassland states. I’m proud to report workshop evaluation surveys completed at the conclusion of each of the workshops for the question, “Considering this workshop in its entirety, how would you rank it?” averaged 4.65 on a scale of 1 to 5.

Workshops begin with an indoor presentation before proceeding outdoors.

High scores are something to feel good about, but are our objectives really being met? In both instances, there were about 30 NRCS, University Extension, state wildlife agency staff and partner biologists attending. Respectable numbers and a good cross-section of participation, also a good crowd size for free and open discussion.

The question that has to be asked, why not more? Was the timing poor with too many conflicts, is it a topic staff aren’t interested in? Was it because there was travel and potentially an overnight stay required? Our survey can’t get those answers, how do you survey someone who wasn’t there? In the meantime we need to figure out an effective way to get our message about integrating native forage into grazing systems and integrating bobwhite management to a larger audience. Workshops are a great way to convey the message and can provide an excellent learning opportunity. The drawback is there are only so many workshops that can be physically conducted within a defined timeframe. Recording the workshops and setting up on-demand webinars can help alleviate the problem of limited time, but typically don’t provide as good a learning opportunity as a workshop combining classroom time and field tours showing examples. With the technology available today, perhaps a live broadcast available for remote viewing and connectivity allowing questions from viewers in real time is an option. Regardless, NBCI will continue to explore the options available and meet the demand to the best of our ability and technical capability.

A significant part of the workshop is challenging long-held beliefs about native forage and bobwhite habitat using science-supported facts about native forages to debunk the common myths.

For example, everyone knows – or least has been told for years, that native grasses are difficult to establish. Not so true, The CNGM looked at their 14-year history of planting native forages and found 85% of the time they were able to establish a production stand of native grasses. Weather extremes were responsible for the majority of the 15% failures. Establishing native grasses is an agronomic practice and as long as you follow the agronomic procedures they are not difficult to establish. When weather extremes are the culprit, it doesn’t matter what you’re planting, it’s going to fail. I’ve not seen the success rate for introduced species for comparison and I’m not sure one exists, other than anecdotal.

So maybe native grasses aren’t so hard to establish, but you can’t graze them for 2 or 3 years. Ever hear that before? Again at the CNGM, they have been consistently able to graze stands in the first

Field tours show workshop participants real-life examples of native forages in production use.

growing season after planting, admittedly not at as high of level as a fully established stand, but they can provide grazing the first year after planting. Because planting native warm-season forage is a deliberate move a grazier can plan accordingly; adjust stocking rate, paddock size or plan for supplemental feeding.

Native grasses are a poor quality forage, why would a rancher want to purposely plant them? Forage quality tests of native warm-season forages don’t compare favorably to introduced species, especially when using forage tests designed for cool-season species. The ultimate test of any forage is animal performance. It has been well documented, over a long period of time, across multiple studies, average daily gains on native warm-season forages falls within the range of 1.5 to 2.0 pounds during the summer months. Conception rates are high, lactation is greater, average weaning weights are higher and, overall, other animal health issues are fewer. Poor quality forage doesn’t have these attributes.

But they are so expensive to establish. If you are doing a prairie restoration with a complex mix of grasses and forbs, yes, they are expensive. Under a production scenario using simple mixtures, depending upon species selected and species being compared to, establishment cost can range for 20% less than introduced species to 50% more. Seed cost can, but not always, be more expensive, but when you look at total establishment cost, considering other inputs, native warm-season forages can be very competitive with introduced species. In economic analyses conducted by CNGM, including establishment cost, a big bluestem-indiangrass mixture was compared to bermudagrass and sudex for hay production, using a $65 per ton price, found a producer could recoup their investment in year 4. The producer would never recoup their investment for bermudagrass or sudex. Now consider this, steers grazing big bluestem/indiangrass provided the least expensive cost per pound of gain at 31 cents, bermudagrass at 54 cents and sudex at 75 cents.

Yeah, but they are hard to manage. If you like continuous grazing, you can keep continuous grazing. Do simple pasture rotations, you can continue simple pasture rotations. Like management intensive grazing, you can keep management intensive grazing. Proper grazing, regardless of forage – cool-season, warm-season, introduced or native, is about proper forage management. The process isn’t any different, only the trigger points for decision making. Of course, proper forage management includes proper stocking rates.

There are many other advantages to incorporating native warm-season forages into a grazing system, some not as easily quantified. There are advantages to soil health, water quality, soil conservation and wildlife. I think if a producer takes an unbiased look at native forages, without the interference of all the misinformed nay-sayers, they will find native warm-season forages to be a valuable addition to their grazing systems.

Fescue fields in the background are brown from the drought.

Jef Hodges

Jef Hodges