By Jason Jones
The “Fescue Belt” is land dominated by non-native cool season grasses, primarily tall fescue. Cool season grasses, such as fescue and orchardgrass, thrive in April to early June and October to November. However, they have obvious drawbacks; and operations that rely exclusively on cool-season forages may find it increasingly difficult to stay above the bottom line.
When the summer is at its peak, cool season grasses can be very unproductive. In contrast, native warm season grasses peak during summer months (85 – 95 F). Warm season grasses are well adapted to Ohio’s soils and climate, with deep root systems which sometimes exceed 10 feet, and a more efficient chemical pathway for photosynthesis. During the summer months, the heat- and drought-tolerant warm season grasses exceed cool season grasses in both quality and quantity of forage. By replacing a percentage of non-native pastures with native ones, producers are benefiting from diversified forage that is more resilient to drought and resistant to fungal endophytes found in fescue that impact herd health.
Figure 1. These are the peak production periods (by month) for warm and cool season grasses. Note how warm season grasses can compensate for the “summer slump” of cool season grasses.
Establishing warm season grasses, and actively managing them as summer forage, can also boost habitat for northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) as well as numerous other grassland birds. The bunch-forming warm season grasses including switchgrass, big bluestem, eastern gamagrass, and indiangrass provide bobwhites with quality habitat for feeding on insects, nesting, and rearing their broods.
To reconnect cattle and quail, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its partners are recommending producers go “old school” by grazing native forages once again. The Northern Bobwhite Quail in Grasslands and Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) a USDA-NRCS Farm Bill Program is a special initiative in 30 of Ohio’s southernmost counties shown in the map linked here.
This program is aimed to assist producers with conservation practices like forage and biomass planting, fencing, brush management, and prescribed grazing as described in this USDA Science to Solutions
A cool season grass pasture in June, July, and August (left) vs. a lush, warm season grass pasture (right) during the same months.