Native Warm-Season Grasses for Horse Pasture in VA and TN

I recently had the opportunity to tour several farms and test pastures with native warm-season grasses in Virginia and Tennessee, and to speak with livestock producers and the head of the largest research center for them east of the Mississippi. I thought it’d be interesting to share some thoughts and photos about it and see what forumites think. FYI, I have no financial stake in a seed company or any other financial horse in the race, I’m just excited that it’s possible to restore wildlife habitat while meeting the dietary needs of our best furry friends.

Prior to this really fun and eye-opening experience, I didn’t think native grasses would be too suited to horse pasture. I’ve changed my tune on that–I think they’d be a solid option for summer pastures (with the exception of switchgrass, which contains diosgenin, toxic to horses). I’ll need to do more research, but I’m also curious about their potential use for insulin resistant horses. Their use for hay seems worth pursuing more as well, and from what I’ve heard from people who hay it in Virginia and Tennessee, it works really well for them.

Note I’m speaking about one specific region–these same species occur across the eastern and midwestern US, and they’re not equally useful across all landscapes due to climatic and soil-related differences.

Here’s some info on them, and some photos I took in VA and TN.

https://utextension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/SP731-A.pdf

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/71848051/NWSG/DSCN0029.JPG

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/71848051/NWSG/DSCN0049.JPG

Thanks for posting this! I’ve been pondering this very topic since touring my alma mater’s campus a couple months ago. They have started growing warm season grasses as biofuels.

My former professor was mentioning how the warm season grasses generally can’t out-compete established, common cool season grasses, like the fescues, blue grasses rye grasses that make up so much of horse pasture.

This may be a silly question-- but if pastures are seeded with warm season grasses instead of the “traditional” cool season grasses, will the pastures have less months of active grazing time? Is there a good way to balance them both for optimal pasture most of the year round?

Establishing the pastures requires burning down the fescue or other C3 (cool-season) grass with herbicide prior to seeding. Extension recommends two applications of herbicide, one in fall, one in spring, but a guy I spoke to who plants the grasses professionally and has grazed sheep on them for years says he’s found that one application in spring, done properly, is enough.

Not a silly question at all–some have longer seasons than others. Gamagrass seems to do better in wetter soils, and it grows from April to September, but needs about 45 days in Fall of growth to prepare for the winter.

Another thing Univ of Tennessee, Knoxville is looking at is interseeding cool-season annuals like annual ryegrass or cereal rye as a forage.

The best use for them would likely be as summer paddocks or backup cool-season annual and perennial warm-season paddocks. It would require slight management in terms of keeping an eye on the grasses to make sure they aren’t grazed lower than 8 inches but aside from that, they’re a great alternative to relying just on bleached endophytic fescue or dormant cool-season grasses in summer.

I would love to have native grasses because of their hardiness and drought tolerance. I talked with my extension agent and the FSA about native grasses for pasture several years ago. The limiting factors for me were cost of the native grass seed and time to establish the stand. Depending on the grass, careful management would also be needed to ensure close grazing doesn’t ruin the stand. The FSA used to have some programs to help with costs, but don’t know if those are available anymore. Warm season grasses, such as Bermuda, are commonly over seeded in cool season forage with annual rye, oats or wheat, so don’t think that would be a problem for perennial native grass pastures. The annual rye and cereal grains would be a problem for IR horses, however. Best of both worlds would be having separate cool season and warm season pastures. Here’s another publication from UT Extension https://utextension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/SP731-C.pdf

There was a reason that the other grasses were developed, chief among them is how well cattle and horses do on them and how hardy they are, we are not raising deer. The native grass people are like the heritage breed folks, not particularly interested in livestock production per se.

I think it is more like wanting to use less fertilizer, herbicides and water. Native grasses are much more tolerant of drought, temperature changes, pests and diseases. When the “other grasses” were developed, agricultural chemicals were less expensive and their environmental impacts were not well known, so they were used frequently. Clean water was not perceived to be a problem. So, if native grasses can provide adequate nutrition (most people supplement or over-supplement as it is), are less expensive to maintain, and have less environmental impact, I don’t see a downside.

Horses evolved on the short grass steppe and can thrive on pastures that would not be profitable for the cattleman. And you can kill a horse on a pasture that will make a cattleman rich.

KY31 (the dominant strain of tall fescue around here) is quite aggressive and even if you eliminate today it will be back unless you can get all your neighbors to do likewise. Nature is very Darwinian. The strain that does best will dominate over other strains (politically correct or not).

I’ve looked into this a couple of times and have always come away sticking with the “modern” grasses. Other folks might make different choices.

G.

[QUOTE=Calamber;7685427]
There was a reason that the other grasses were developed, chief among them is how well cattle and horses do on them and how hardy they are, we are not raising deer. The native grass people are like the heritage breed folks, not particularly interested in livestock production per se.[/QUOTE]I would agree with this statement, with one major caveat. Modern pasture grasses were developed with the express purpose of putting weight on CATTLE and other food animals, not for horses to whom the high sugar grasses can result in deadly founder and dangerous IR.

Here in Middle Tn during most winters of tyical weather my horses can graze on fescue 10-11 months a year. That is significantly better than the 7-8 months warm season grasses can do. I’m looking at a pretty significant investment in hay to fill those pasture-less months. Add to that the cost (and time!) of establishing new pasture then trying (probably not to successfully) to keep the KY31 out and it becomes a very expensive prospect.

I’ve looked into this before and one of the things I didn’t see in the OPs information was how well the warm season grass pasture do with the wear and tear of horses turned out on them. My understanding is that they don’t hold up well. For someone like me that does a significant part of my riding and schooling in the pasture that’s not just a forage management problem, but a land usage one as well.

Insulin resistant horses can benefit from hay produced from warm season grasses, but being typically coarser you have to get them to eat it.

That sounds like a major management problem to me. Even with rotational grazing, my horses eat the grass in one “patch” down to about 3-4 inches before moving on to the next patch. So a not-recently-mowed pasture is a patchwork of 4 inch tall patches and 12"+ tall patches.

[QUOTE=apcohrs;7685914]
I would agree with this statement, with one major caveat. Modern pasture grasses were developed with the express purpose of putting weight on CATTLE and other food animals, not for horses to whom the high sugar grasses can result in deadly founder and dangerous IR.[/QUOTE]

Not true, fescue was developed to allow for nearly all season grazing because it would withstand heavy traffic whether it was for horses or cattle, the US seeded 30 million acres during the depression in the dustbowl areas. It was for horses, cattle and sheep. Orchard grass, timothy, fescue, ryegrass, bluegrass etc. were all developed for horses, cattle and sheep. Some of the most beautiful animals I have seen recently were grazing on modern pasture in North Dakota and in the area of Black Diamond in Washington State which is volcanic soil (higher mineral content). They all need to gain weight and it is not the sugars that give the gain to cattle, it is protein. It is interesting to note that the cool season grasses have a 9% higher rate of digestion which also plays a part. Also interesting in the second link discussion that cattle grow bigger frames and have less gain on grass although they do gain early, then comes what they call the compensatory gain. The sugars surge during early growing and of course once the fall rains come in the areas where that applies and all grasses do that.

http://www.horsepasture.com/cool/index.html#.U9anC9Dn99A

http://www.horsepasture.com/cool/index.html#.U9anC9Dn99A

I have helped a few people make plans for planting native grass. Most of them would not go to the time and trouble to establish and manage it. Depending on what is there to begin with, it can take a full year of multiple herbicide applications to deplete the seed in the soil. Fescue is a booger to kill and keep out.
Yes, native grass is less productive and requires more intensive management for sustainability. Lots of carefully timed herbicide until its fully established. Might need irrigation for places with dry summers. Rotational, carefully timed grazing. That means cross fencing. Maybe 1 cutting of hay with no or limited grazing.
It’s way lower in sugar starch and fructan, so great for ponies and other easy keeper breeds. TB’s would need grain. Its not cheap or easy.

[QUOTE=Calamber;7687289]
Not true, fescue was developed to allow for nearly all season grazing because it would withstand heavy traffic whether it was for horses or cattle, the US seeded 30 million acres during the depression in the dustbowl areas. It was for horses, cattle and sheep. Orchard grass, timothy, fescue, ryegrass, bluegrass etc. were all developed for horses, cattle and sheep. Some of the most beautiful animals I have seen recently were grazing on modern pasture in North Dakota and in the area of Black Diamond in Washington State which is volcanic soil (higher mineral content). They all need to gain weight and it is not the sugars that give the gain to cattle, it is protein. It is interesting to note that the cool season grasses have a 9% higher rate of digestion which also plays a part. Also interesting in the second link discussion that cattle grow bigger frames and have less gain on grass although they do gain early, then comes what they call the compensatory gain. The sugars surge during early growing and of course once the fall rains come in the areas where that applies and all grasses do that.

http://www.horsepasture.com/cool/index.html#.U9anC9Dn99A

http://www.horsepasture.com/cool/index.html#.U9anC9Dn99A[/QUOTE]

It used to be said that a jackrabbit had to pack a lunch to cross East TN! If look at old maps you’ll see large areas marked “Barrens” meaning that there was little to no forage for horses or mules. Grazing was typically in the Bottoms along creeks.

Then came Tall Fescue. And the rise of the local livestock industry in the mountains.

Progress often comes at a price.

G.

There are a lot of misconceptions about these grasses floating around here. I’ll try to address them piecemeal. These grasses won’t work for everyone but I think they’ll work for more people than a lot of posters here suspect. Their best niche is on 20-30% of a moderate to large acreage in VA and TN.

1) Less productivity. In a four month span, you can get 3-4 tons of production in hay alone from NWSG. That’s equal to or exceeding the average pasture productivity of KY31. And then you can graze it after.

  1. Poorer nutrition. Cattle gain an average of .75lbs/day on tall fescue in summer. Contrast that with 1.5-3lbs/day on NWSG in summer. This isn’t sugar-driven, so I don’t believe it’s an IR risk despite the cattle gains.

  2. Establishment costs. When fertilizer and summer hay costs are factored in (as well as the oft-necessary herbicide applications on overgrazed horse pastures) the cost of establishment is less per lb/gain on cattle than introduced warm-season grasses. The University of TN in Knoxville has done a lot of study on this and produced an extremely useful economic decision tool that factors in every variable imaginable–you can use it to determine if converting a portion of your acreage is worthwhile financially. Gain is obviously less relevant to horses, but summer hay is still a factor for many people I know.

http://nativeforages.utk.edu/tool.html

  1. Can’t tolerate grazing. The pasture walk included pastures with set-stocked cattle on them summer-long. I saw for myself that the plants weren’t damaged long-term. The research they’re doing at UTK is intentionally delving into what Dr. Keyser calls “redneck management,” i.e. shoving animals out on the pasture in May and picking them back up in August, and the results are impressive thus far. I got my MS in rangeland ecology, so I’m very comfortable in my ability to evaluate the grazing and environmental stress of native grasses. All these were grazed above their apical meristems and were able to draw upon both photosynthesis and structural carbohydrate reserves to maintain growth. The grasses WON’T tolerate mowing below 8 inches, as this cuts off the growing point and severely stresses these C reserves, but aside from mowing, they’re tough and productive.

  2. Can’t compete with weeds. This is only true, as with any plant, when the seedlings are establishing and the roots are digging down. In an established pasture, you’d be hard-pressed to out-do a 10-foot deep root system and 6 foot tall blades of grass. As I said above, a guy we met on the tour who establishes these as his primary income said that he felt one spring application of herbicides, when done properly, was more than adequate for establishing a healthy stand.

Fescue has two advantages that account for its popularity in my opinion. It tolerates poor management better than most grasses thanks to its toxin-producing fungi, and it’s great for winter stockpiling. Aside from that, there are many grasses, native and introduced, that can do as well or better in many situations, and those grasses are especially necessary if one has broodmares of course.

Basically, I think the big disconnect in our area is that most people are used to cool-season forages and the idea of something that produces in summer is new and different. But for some farms, that 4 months of productivity per year could mean 4 months of extremely reduced hay costs, and when you consider the potential (for non-IR situations) use of cheap winter annuals to supplement that, the acreage in NWSG could be producing 11 months per year for less money long-term than just getting hay for X number of horses.

Like I said, it isn’t for every barn or property but I think it’s a seriously worthwhile option for places with dozens of horses and even more acres. For a place that’s say 10 acres with 3 horses, not so worthwhile. For places like a polo barn on a large estate or a breeding farm with lactating broodmares in summer, I think it’s definitely worth looking into.

Edit: I should add that since cattle are mentioned frequently here, the major momentum for the return of these grasses is cattleman-driven. Between fertilizer costs, droughts, hay costs, and the lack of decent summer forage, many producers in VA and TN have been switching 1/5 to 1/3 of their operation over, so as for “progress” and the way things are being done by the progressive ranchers and farmers…well, I’m seeing a definite trend in that regard in favor of these grasses. One more thing to mention is that I believe federal cost-shares are available in many situations for people who do switch over–your local NRCS personnel would have more info and understanding of that than anyone.

I have to say you must not be following the new fescue developed which is endophyte free, the so called “toxin”. I do not know of a great revamping of pasturelands with native grasses. Certainly willing to see if that is so but I have not heard of it in Virginia of which I am most familiar and for sure, in Eastern Washington State, which is hay growing capital of the state, there is not a big push. I do know that the Sierra Club and other environmentalist organizations of pushing it big in Montana and Wyoming but, thus far, they are ruling out letting grazing animals on it, so can’t say what the progress is there.

It is not PC to point this out but “production agriculture” is quite Darwinian. That which works well is used and that which just works is less used.

G.

Agriculture is indeed Darwinian, so I’m pretty encouraged by what I’m seeing. There’s a huge move towards reduced inputs and better pasture management in livestock production right now in Virginia, a la Jim Gerrish or Alan Savory. My educational background, research, and primary source of income are all directly involved with grassland livestock production (none of it involving NWSG establishment, so I have no financial ties to this nor will I for the foreseeable future).

Calamber, the grasses I’m discussing are not the dominant species in Montana or the Pacific Northwest. Montana’s native grasses are quite different from those of VA and TN, and Montana has a great deal of native grasses already on its range.

Novel endophyte Max Q seed is pricey, and as for endophyte-free, if you seed it in a pasture even adjacent to endophyte-positive fescue, it won’t be free in a few years. NWSG seeds aren’t grown in the Pacific NW, btw–most are grown in the Midwest, Texas, and the Upper South (KY in particular).

QacarXan
I totally agree with you, and have suggested many of the same concepts. But while it makes sense to us, it’s a hard sell to many horse owners. Here are some of the problems I’ve come across. Not saying it makes any sense…. But this stuff is important to clients. It’s late and I’ve had my wine quota. Please excuse some facetiousness.

  1. They want ‘organic’ even though they have no idea what that means. No herbicides. No ‘chemical’ fertilizer. They want ‘biodyamic’ fertilizer, but they don’t’ know what that means, either. Or, the local commercial fertilizer dealer will not mess with custom spreading on a 4 acre plot, they can’t fit through the gate, or they charge so much for the hassle, the client won’t spend that much.

  2. They don’t have the proper equipment to top 8 inches high. Since they think that mowing close is the best way to control weeds, their mower only raises to 4 inches max. Or, ‘they are saving up for a tractor and mower’, after they sell the first crop of foals, so they are using their lawn mower a little at a time. They need feed first, because they didn’t budget enough to buy hay past the first 6 months.

  3. They want ‘live green growing nutrients’. Again neither they nor I know what exactly this means, but its green. Stockpiled forage is dead, therefore bad. Their horses don’t like it. The neighborhood has all annual ryegrass during winter, so they want their farm to be just as ‘pretty’.

  4. They don’t have access to a no-till drill, so they have to broadcast twice as much seed to harrow in. $$$$

  5. The really sweet old farmer they bought the land from who said he’d custom farm died, and his son won’t mess with them, so they have NO equipment available.

  6. They want even LONGER than May to Aug. They don’t want cross fencing to rotate. They already spent a lot of time and effort pulling out all the cross fencing, so ‘the horses can run free and more Natural’.

Perhaps some horse owners keep a budget and consider long term cost effectiveness, but I have not met one yet. What makes perfect sense to a livestock producer who is in it to make a living is meaningless for someone whose goal is to feel good about having horses as a means of spending their life savings or inheritance.

Best of luck to you. If you can make this happen, you are a much better promoter than I.

Katy, those kinds of managers are definitely not the ones I’d promote any grass but rank ole fescue to! As I said, its greatest perk is that it can take abuse, and that kind of “management” is definitely on the abuse side for grasses.

I’m thinking more of places with enough horses and acreage to make it worthwhile. FWIW, in my area there are seed drills for rent at cost-to-transport prices thanks to the Smithsonian, so finding one of those isn’t a problem.

What’s your involvement with the grasses, btw? It’s refreshing to find a horse owner so familiar with them.

I was not suggesting that Native Warm grasses were in Montana or the Pacific NW, although, if you checked, the Eastern part of Washington State is hot, so, if it were viable in warm weather, it would be there but it is not. I don’t support the “return” of native grasses, probably hybrid crosses might be worth working on, and I am not just interested in “pretty” lush fields, I just don’t believe the hoopla behind it and am fairly certain it is financed by the major environmental organizations. In fact I know someone who is involved, (not the Native Warm grasses) she was in Montana and now in Wyoming and for sure was hired in Montana by either the World Wide Fund for Nature or it’s offshoots, which keeps private native grasslands areas, lost that job and is now in Wyoming pushing the same sort of privately funded business. I really don’t see why you are making a differentiation in such a narrow way, native would be clearly native to the region, if it “works” in it’s region would that not supposedly hold true for all?

What really does not make sense to me is the rather extensive use of herbicides and pesticides, but using no till? I would not do this (beyond the big investment needed and somewhat dicey info regarding it’s hardiness in reasonable use) for the very simple reason that it destroys so much of that which is needed to establish a really healthy pastureland, valuable insects such as dung beetles, disturbance of healthy soil nematodes, etc. and potentially poisons the water systems. I just cannot see the point.