Agricultural Uses for Native Warm Season Grasses | Ernst Conservation Seeds

Agricultural Uses for Warm Season Grasses 

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Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a perennial, warm season grass native to most of the eastern United States. It is drought and salt tolerant, needs little to no fertilizer and does well in shallow, wet soils.  Its long roots improve soil and water quality by absorbing nutrients and sequestering carbon dioxide.

The seven to eight foot tall grass benefits wildlife, offering optimal nesting and cover. Switchgrass is recommended for marginal lands in which other crops would not produce strong yields, specifically wet, low lying areas or those susceptible to erosion. While many are aware of the merits of switchgrass for such things as biofuel feedstock, many are less familiar with its potential use for a number of agricultural applications.

  • Switchgrass, like a number of other native warm season grasses (NWSG), can produce high-quality forage. Switchgrass used in a system of rotational grazing allows for robust growth during the hot summer months. University of Tennessee findings suggest the nutrient content of this forage can be as high as 16-17 percent crude protein, if harvested correctly.

    Ground switchgrass straw is experiencing increased use as a forage extender in feeds for livestock. It works to increase bulk and dilute protein in operations with sources of high protein feed.

  • Switchgrass has extensive roots that can grow as deep as five to six feet into the ground. In addition to serving as a superior soil stabilizer in erosion control, this plant and its root system form a tremendous ecological filter — soaking up nutrients like nitrogen and sequestering carbon dioxide.

    Use of switchgrass as a buffer between agricultural activity and watersheds is seen by many as one of the best methods for protection of these priceless resources.

  • Studies have shown that ground switchgrass in loose form is easy on the pads of chickens’ feet, is highly absorptive and offers a benefit over other beddings in the prevention of ammonia. Recently, NWSG pellets are being produced for use in horse stalls.

    This product is gaining popularity among horse owners for its superior absorption properties, ease of cleanup and the comfort it provides the animals. These developing markets for NWSGs offer significant promise for producers interested in growing them on their own land, either for their own operational use or as an additional revenue crop.

Producers of warm season grasses now have an organization through which to glean and share information on these exciting new markets and the potential for NWSGs in agricultural operations. The Association of Warm Season Grass Producers (AWSGP) has recently formed. Learn more at www.awsgp.org.

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DISCLAIMER: The information in this review of practices is the result of more than 50 years of experience in seed production. Ernst Conservation Seeds has been supplying seeds and consulting in the reseeding of tens of thousands of acres of roadsides, surfacemined lands, conservation and restoration sites in eastern North America, as well as growing and supplying seed and consulting in the planting of hundreds of thousands of acres of CRP/CREP-related areas for erosion control and wildlife habitat. All of these practices are opinion only and our best advice as a result of these experiences. These recommendations do not cover all of the conditions that will be encountered in the field. All of the information is for individual consideration. Ernst Conservation Seeds is not responsible for conditions that will be encountered in individual situations. The use of brand names does not represent our endorsement of a specific product; rather, it represents our experience only and has not necessarily been replicated in peer-reviewed research. The use of chemical pest control agents is subject to manufacturers’ instructions and labeling, as well as federal, state and local regulations.
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