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Utilizing the “green” on the hillside

Alisa Anderson Published on 05 February 2010
Anderson hillside

In the Midwestern states there are many small pockets of native prairie grasses.

These remnants of the original prairie remain because they are usually on rocky, steep, shallow or otherwise unusable land. But this resource doesn’t need to go to waste. When managed correctly, prairie grass can be cut and marketed as hay.

The four main varieties of warm-season grasses are big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass and indiangrass. Some warm-season hay meadows will have up to 40 varieties of grasses. Brome grass is a cool-season grass that is popular among horse owners.

Pre-bloom brome grass has a 16 percent protein level. Other varieties of prairie hay have about a 9 percent protein level when cut in early bloom. Although prairie hay doesn’t have as much protein as legume hays, research suggests that the protein in prairie hay is bypass protein, and thus more easily digestible.

Low potassium levels in prairie hay attract dairy producers, who will feed it to dry cows, according to Kirby Klotenborg, a prairie hay dealer in Emmett, Nebraska.

“Most of our market is still sale barns, feedlots and some cow-calf people. Horse owners probably make up less than 10 percent of our business,” he says.

Klotenborg owns Emmett Hay Service, which cuts and markets prairie hay. He cuts 1,500 acres of hay that he buys standing, usually putting up about 3,000 tons of hay. Throughout the fall and winter he buys large round bales and re-bales them as small bales to market as well.

“In this area it’s traditionally been a cash crop. The quality is good. It works really well for starting calves. It’s very palatable and has a really good smell to it. It has enough feed value that a lot of cow-calf guys pretty much just winter their cows on nothing but prairie hay. It’s a good enough, complete ration for them to eat nothing but the prairie hay and stay in good condition,” Klotenborg says.

Low-input costs also make prairie hay attractive. There are no planting costs, and in many cases, no fertilizing costs.

“We cut all native grass. It’s not something that we’ve seeded in. It’s essentially the same kind of grass that was growing here when the buffalo roamed,” Klotenborg says.

Brome is the only prairie grass that benefits from fertilizer. Fertilizer generally doesn’t significantly increase the tonnage with warm-season grasses, and it encourages weed growth.

Cool-season grasses that benefit from fertilization will take over a stand of warm-season grasses unless controlled. Cool-season grasses start earlier and compete with the new, warm-season grass for light and nutrients, according to Brian Rees, a Lyon County, Kansas extension agent.

Burning a hay meadow every three years is the easiest way to control the cool-season grasses. “The normal time for burning native warm- season grasses is in the latter part of April.

Normally we like to see an inch to two inches of new growth in the big bluestem. Of course, your cool-season grasses have already taken off and been running for a month or so.

They have to start back completely from the roots. The ground’s black, so it warms up faster and the warm-season grasses just jump, as opposed to the cool-season grasses who are saying, ‘Man, it’s too hot now,’” explains Rees.

Cutting too early also doesn’t allow the more desirable grasses to re-seed, thus allowing weeds and cool-season grasses to move in. Klotenborg says he starts cutting hay in the first week of July.

At this point the grass isn’t too mature, but they don’t miss the better varieties of hay by cutting too early. “By having a range of maturities, you have to try to hit the majority of the highs,” says Rees.

Klotenborg only cuts the hay meadows once. Second cuttings can reduce the next year’s yield by as much as 50 percent. Rees says he tries to discourage second cuttings.

“By taking one cutting, the grass has a chance to continue its growth, replenish the root system and be in good shape going into the winter, so that come springtime, it’s got the root reserves to come up and grow again,” Rees says.

If the weather is good and the humidity is low, the hay can usually be dried and baled within 24 hours. Klotenborg has started using an electronic moisture probe to maintain less than 15 percent moisture in his bales. “If we start baling and test the first couple of bales, and they’re running 16 percent, then we have to shut down and wait an hour or so.

Otherwise, you’ll end up with dark spots in the hay where it just wasn’t dry enough,” Klotenborg says.

Cutting prairie grass is becoming increasingly less common.

“They’ve plowed up a lot of the traditional meadows, gone with center-pivot irrigation and are raising row crops, soybeans and corn. It’s not as big a market as it was 20 or 30 years ago. It used to be that when cattle were brought into the feedlot they always started them on prairie hay to tighten their gut, get them coming to the bunk and get them started eating good.

But now the nutritionists have told them that they need to get them on a hotter ration as quickly as they can to improve efficiency, ” says Klotenborg. FG

Anderson Hillside

Alisa Anderson
Staff Writer