COOL SEASON GRASSES FOR FORAGE & WILDLIFE
What are the negative effects of Non-native cool season grasses on wildlife?
Non-native cool-season grasses include timothy, redtop, orchardgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and tall fescue. Although there is a native variety of redtop which is a warm season grass, most redtop sold is the non-native cool season variety. Tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass produce thick sods which reduce the diversity of the field. The limited diversity reduces the number of insects and seeds available for wildlife to feed on. The dense growth of this species also makes it difficult for wildlife to move around. Quail chicks are unable to move in a dense sod of tall fescue. Orchardgrass in the past has been recommended as a wildlife friendly cool-season grass however like tall fescue it can also develop a dense sod.
The non-native grasses rarely grow more than 2 ft to 4 ft tall and do not stand up well to snow and ice. This means that during the winter they provide little to no cover for wildlife. Wildlife that use non-native grasses have limited cover to hide from predators in and little thermal protection from cold winter winds. When grazed or hayed the non native grasses are even shorter often providing no more cover than a plowed crop field.
Tall fescue has another issue with it, a fungus (endophyte) that lives in the stems and leaves which has been found to have negative effects on a number of species. It can cause reduction in weight gains and reduce reproduction of animals that become infected when they feed on the plants. For instance rabbits have been found to produce fewer young when they fed on tall fescue that is infected. Cattle have been found to have lower gains when fed endophyte infected fescue and horses have been found to have reduced reproduction and increased still births.
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Alternatives: Native Cool Season Grass
If your operation needs cool season grasses and you have an interest in wildlife consider planting native cool season grasses. Native cool season grasses for Tennessee include Virginia, Canada, riverbank, and silky wildrye. These native cool season grasses provide good forage for livestock and habitat. Virginia or Canada wild rye will grow 3 to 4 feet tall. Virginia wild-rye prefers moist loamy soils while Canada wild rye prefers drier sites. Both wild ryes are bunch grasses meaning like native warm season grasses they typically do not form a thick sod. Also these native cool season grasses stand up better to snow and ice than non-native cool season grasses. Other native cool-season grasses that could be used for forage include poverty oat grass, river oats, fowl mannagrass, American mannagrass, and cluster fescue; however, their seed availability is limited and more expensive than other native grasses. If you are considering using native cool season grasses then you need to make sure that they are not grazed or hayed below 6 inches like other native grasses.
If you entire operation relies solely on non-native cool grasses and you have an interest in wildlife you should consider switching a minimum of 25% of your forage acreage to native warm season grasses. Also consider converting your non-native cool season grasses over time to native cool-season grasses. Non-native grasses which include cool season and warm season will never provide the needed habitat for wildlife on your farm. The more diverse your forage production operation is the better you will be able to adapt to market changes as well as the more habitat you will be able to provide. You also will need to realize that having non-native grasses in your system will reduce the overall diversity and potential of wildlife on your property.
If you would like to improve the benefit of non-native cool season grass consider adding legumes to your cool season grass mixes which can benefit wildlife and livestock. Non-native legumes such as alfalfa, red clover, crimson clover, or white clover can be added to cool season grasses. You should avoid planting species like crown vetch, birdsfoot trefoil, annual lespedeza, sericea lespedeza, and sweetclover because these species have been found to become invasive when they escape into native habitats.
Native legumes such as roundhead bush clover, Illinois bundleflower, partridge pea, tick-trefoils, prairie clover, Canada milkvetch, etc. can also be added. Native legumes are more expensive than the non-native ones. If you plan on going the native route you can also add native forbs such as purple coneflower, grey-headed coneflower, Maximillian sunflower, downy sunflower, etc. to your planting. Native legumes and wildflowers will do better with native cool season grasses and warm season grasses than they will with non-native grasses. Also native legumes and forbs provide more benefits for wildlife than non-native ones.
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Cool Season Grass Mixes for Wildlife
Below are some recommended example cool season grass mixes for wildlife and livestock. Although these mixes may not fit all situations and conditions a biologist will be able to help you tailor a planting for your property and needs. A cover crop of oats at a rate of 20 lbs/acre can also be used with these mixes.
All Non-native Mix
Non-Native Cool Season Grasses
Native and Non-native Mixes
Native legumes and forbs could be replaced with 4 to 6 pounds of non-native legumes if forage is more important than wildlife. (PLS = Pure Live Seed)
Mix 1 Moist to Dry Sites Soils
4 lbs/acre PLS
2 lb/acre PLS
Roundhead bush clover
Native Mix Summer Wildlife Cover
3.5 lbs/acre PLS
1 lb/acre PLS
1 lb/acre PLS
0.5 lb/acre PLS
Roundheaded bush clover
Additional native forb and legumes mixes can be found here.
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Both non-native and native cool season grasses can be established the same as other cool season grasses. The typical planting period is spring (February - April) or fall (mid August - September). Site preparation such as burning, haying, mowing, or grazing may be necessary to eradicate thick grass and/or reduce tall vegetation prior to actual conversion. Unless a field has been grazed or cut regularly for hay, burning will greatly aid in establishing cool season grasses by removing thick, matted grass, thereby resulting in a more effective treatment of the existing sod and less competition for new seedlings. Once such preliminary work has been completed, grassy fields should be sprayed with glyphosate herbicide at a rate of 2 quarts/acre plus surfactant to kill fescue and other vegetation before seeding. Spraying should be done 1-2 weeks prior to planting on a warm, sunny day when vegetation is about 8 inches tall and actively growing. If you are planting native cool-season grasses you will not be able to use imazapic which is often recommended for native warm season grasses. Native cool season grasses are sensitive to imazapic and its use can reduce stand quality.
Planting cool season grass into fields where row crops, such as corn and soybeans, have recently been planted and harvested will reduce the amount of work you will need to do. Crop stubble should be mowed short prior to planting. When planting into existing crop fields be cautious of potential residual effects of chemicals used to control weeds on the field in previous years which may affect the establishment of the grass you are planting, For instance atrazine can affect establishment of some grass, forbs, and legumes for 2 or more growing seasons.
There are 3 potential ways to plant cool season grasses these include drilling, no-till drilling, and broadcasting. It is recommended that a no-till drilling is used to seed on existing grass areas that have been herbicide treated and on crop fields to reduce potential of erosion and to increase seed soil contact. If you are unable to use a no-till drill then broad casting can be done on a field that has been disked and cultipacked. After broadcasting the seed the area should be drag, little harrowed, or cultipaked. A standard drill can be used for non-native cool season grasses, but a native grass no-till drill may be needed for planting the native grasses. Mixes containing fluffier warm season grasses like little bluestem will have difficulty going through a standard drill. Also the long awns of wildryes may have some difficulty going through a standard drill.
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Haying with Wildlife in Mind
When haying to protect wildlife you should either start at one end of the field and mow back and forth across the field (fig.1) or start in the middle of the field and hay out from the center (fig. 2). Mowing around the field until reaching the center forces wildlife to move toward the center of the field. This can cause them to hold longer and be killed easier by the mower. Also it does not give wildlife cover to escape to as the mowing gets closer to the center of the field. You should never hay at night if you are interested in protecting wildlife. Haying at night increases the potential of killing more wildlife because they are more likely to hold longer or flush wildly into the path of the mower.A method used in the Midwest and Great Plains for waterfowl and pheasants in the past was the use of a flushing bar. A flushing bar is a bar mounted 4 or 5 feet in front of the cutting bar of the mower parallel to the cutting bar 3ft to 4 ft off the ground. The bar is mounted to move or bend if it hits an obstruction. Chains spaced from 6 to 10 inch are attached to the bar and drop to the ground. The idea of the flush bar is that the chains dragging along and hitting vegetation will force wildlife to run or flush before the mower hits them. There have been mixed results found with the use of flushing bars and its effects on the survival of nesting ducks and pheasants.
Other options for improving a hay field for wildlife are leaving a border or using a rest rotation. A 50 ft border around the field provides some nesting and winter cover for wildlife that utilize the edge, such as in particular quail and rabbits. Grassland birds such as Henslow's sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, and meadowlarks are not as likely to use the borders of fields. Another option is the rest rotation, in which half of the field is not cut each year. If quail and rabbits are your primary interest then the area rested should be along a wooded edge or brushy fencerow. A rest rotation not only can benefit wildlife, but it can benefit future hay production. The rest rotation can provide potentially nesting cover for quail, rabbits, and some songbirds.
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Grazing with Wildlife in Mind
For cool season grasses typically grazing occurs during September through November and late February through June. On most properties cattle are allowed to move about the pasture freely. Some areas of the pasture will get grazed more heavily than others while other areas may be grazed very little or not at all. The mosaic of grazed and ungrazed will result in the best diversity of plants and habitat for wildlife. It provides areas of taller vegetation and shorter more sparse vegetation. Cattle can be encouraged to feed on other areas of the pasture by moving salt blocks or water to areas that are not grazed as much. The main issue with grazing non-native cool season grasses is that the vegetation is never very tall especially if a rest period is not used. With native grasses cattle often stop grazing at 6 in to 8 in leaving some cover for wildlife. However if cattle are left to long in the pasture they will graze the native grasses lower than 6 inches. If native grasses are grazed lower than 6 inches for an extended period it will reduce their vigor and eventually kill them. Too high of a stocking rate for your pasture will result in no cover being available for wildlife which is typical seen on many non-native cool season pastures late in the fall and in early spring. If you want to make you cool season pastures more beneficial to wildlife consider using rotational grazing. Rotational grazing can have some benefits for wildlife, but if the stocking rate is too high and the rest period is too short it will reduce the value of the grass for wildlife. At high stocking rates nest can be trampled by cattle and the vegetation can be left too short. Small rotational paddocks are of less value to wildlife than larger paddocks. If too short of a rest period is used between grazing events, there will be a reduction in grass growth, and the value for wildlife will be reduced. Also if cattle are allowed to graze too intensively the diversity of plant species found in the paddock will be less.
The best way to provide habitat for wildlife and improve grazing during the summer is to incorporate native warm season grasses. The typical recommendation is for at least 25% of your forage base to beshould be native grasses. The more native grass and wildflowers that you add to your forage bases the more beneficial it will be for wildlife on your property.
When using native warm season grasses and cool season grasses in you rotation you can provide more habitat. Arm Season grasses can typically be grazed from May through August. This can then give you cool season grasses a rest period allowing them to grow and increase carbohydrate reserves before going dormant in June.
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