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The gamagrass payoff

Patrick Keyser for Progressive Forage Published on 24 September 2020

Chuck Benhoff is confident he knows what his best agricultural investment ever was. A decision he made way back when, as best as either of us can recall, during the early 1990s.

That was the year he decided to plant one of the pastures on his 225-acre commercial beef operation to eastern gamagrass.

If you are not familiar with eastern gamagrass, it is a native, perennial, warm-season grass. This species, once common from the Great Plains across the eastern U.S. and as far south as southern Florida, is a deep-rooted subtropical grass. It produces large amounts of forage and is extremely tolerant of hot and dry weather, continuing to produce even under severe conditions (Photo 1).

Eastern gamagrass provide large volumes of summer forage

All of which may help explain why Chuck decided to take a chance on planting gamagrass on his operation.

After he and his wife, Tammy, bought the worn-out tobacco farm in the mid-1980s, they grew a herd of black baldies based on a tall fescue/orchardgrass forage base. I asked Chuck what got him interested in trying to build warm-season grasses into his operation.

“Things went along all right for a few years,” Chuck said, “but we had hit a wall as far as production was concerned. We couldn’t afford to buy more land, so the only option was better management. The fescue played out in the hot, humid summers here. Plus, we were plagued with dry periods, 60 to 90 days nearly every year with little or no rain. We had climate change back then too (we just called it drought) – and it seemed to come every summer. I started hearing about warm-season grasses, and I could see that the corn seemed to grow even if it was 102 degrees.”

What about just using summer annuals? Chuck worked with them for several years but wanted to look into something that lasted longer and avoided the costs of planting every year – seed, herbicide, fertilizer and equipment rental. “I figured maybe we could put in a perennial that would last for several years. Little did I realize how long that decision would impact our farm.”

Establishment

I asked Chuck how difficult it was to get the stand of the gamagrass. “Well, it’s not like planting a summer annual and being able to graze in 45 days, that’s for sure,” he replied. Using PMK variety (now called Pete), he planted 10 acres.

“I used a borrowed no-till corn planter with 30-inch rows after spraying once with glyphosate. This was around the first of June in the early ’90s, and that was the last time that field was planted. The gamagrass is still going strong, some quarter-century later,” he said.

The first year they just watched, hoping to get a good stand, no grazing whatsoever. The second year allowed for some light grazing while the plants’ deep root system (6 to 12 feet deep) continued to develop. “Once you get into the third year, gamagrass can be grazed or hayed on regular intervals, being sure to leave adequate recovery periods,” he related. “Once you get past there, you should have the stand for life – and maybe the next generation also.”

This slow start can scare some away from planting eastern gamagrass or other natives, but given the long stand life and high productivity, these grasses can still be a solid investment. Economic analyses conducted at the University of Tennessee back up Chuck’s experience. There is another reason they can be a good return on your dollar – limited inputs.

No lime or fertilizer at establishment and very little thereafter. “We have not fertilized our gamagrass in years. When we did add as little as 50 pounds of nitrogen a year, the growth was almost out of control. It can also handle a wide pH range and will not need lime unless the soil is unusually acidic.” As far as weed control, Benhoff says he has only sprayed his fields once, before planting and have allowed the gamagrass to do its own weed control by shading out grasses and weeds. He found that the gamagrass can take care of itself if managed correctly.

Management

Another question I asked Chuck was on his management: How does he approach grazing this grass, and how does haying figure in? “My original plan was to have the gamagrass available to graze during the ‘summer slump,’ and it has worked beautifully for that purpose.” The Benhoffs currently have two established gamagrass fields, 10 acres and 6 acres, both over 25 years old. These fields are stripped off with single-strand poly wire and step-in posts into roughly 2.5-acre paddocks and then grazed for two days each with the entire cow herd – roughly 40 cows with calves, 20 yearlings and a bull or two, so close to 100 head.

Because gamagrass, like other prairie grasses, is a tall-growing species, management certainly looks different than other more conventional forage species, such as tall fescue or bermudagrass. Turnout on their Virginia operation occurs when the gamagrass is as much as 48 inches tall with a target residual of around 24 inches (Photo 2).

Gamagrass is a tall-growing species

In Chuck’s experience, leaving adequate residual has been important for quick regrowth and especially weed control. A summer or two of grazing while leaving a high residual canopy will set back all but the most aggressive weed pressure.

The first graze will be in mid-May and then every 30 days or so until mid-September. “After the September grazing, the cows are pulled for the rest of the year to let the gamagrass regrow and store nutrients for the following spring,” Benhoff notes. The 30 days between each grazing and the fall rest period are critical in keeping a strong and healthy stand. “I think my stand of gamagrass gets a little better every year with this management – now it is better than ever.” Chuck offers a caution though on set stocking. “The cows will keep the gamagrass cropped close, and it will never have a chance to renew its energy reserves, resulting in thinning and stand loss.”

“In a perfect environment, we would never want to mow our gamagrass for hay. I would rather run all our forage through a cow and bring in stored forages from another source,” Benhoff says. However, they have found that harvesting hay every three years or so can help keep woody brush in check. Gamagrass hay is relished by the cows. “I love to see them pull a mouthful of 3-foot-long gamagrass leaves out of a bale, raise their head with satisfaction and seemingly swallow giant clumps without doing much chewing at all. Gamagrass hay gets cleaned up.”

So often, we talk about needing a good warm-season grass to complement our cool-season forages. I asked Chuck how that has worked out in his experience, and he replied, “The beauty of gamagrass is you have lots of options during summer when cool-season grasses are worthless. I think a cow was meant to eat warm-season grasses in the warm season and cool-season grasses in the cool season, just that simple. We do not force fescue on our cows in the summer. The fescue will be there in the late fall and winter when the cows need a fresh, green forage.”

“After all,” Chuck noted, “this is the grass that buffalo grazed, that the early settlers said was higher than a tall horse in the Shenandoah Valley, a grass that costs nothing to graze year in and year out. With just a little management, mimicking natural grazing patterns, gamagrass can turn your summer slump into the ‘summer bump.’” Now you know why he says, “This field has been my best agricultural investment ever.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Eastern gamagrass provides large volumes of summer forage, as seen in this picture taken on July 11 in southern Virginia. 

PHOTO 2: As a tall-growing species, turnout and removal of animals from each paddock are at greater forage heights than for more traditional forage species. Photos by Chuck Benhoff.

Chuck Benhoff operates a 225-acre commercial beef operation. Email Chuck Benhoff

Patrick Keyser
  • Patrick Keyser

  • University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, Center for Native Grasslands
  • Email Patrick Keyser

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