Opinion: Raising livestock on native grasses benefits farmers, wildlife and the soil

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Early on a cool June morning, a heavy dew covers the grass of a rolling farmland somewhere in Tennessee, Missouri or Pennsylvania. Small patches of fog hang in low pockets over these fields. In the distance, hard-working farmers begin their day. Farm equipment rattles, tractors roar and voices recounting the day’s work drift over the airwaves.

This pastoral scene is repeated thousands of times every morning across rural America. But something is missing: the exuberant “Bob bob white!” the cry of the bobwhite quail which, for generations, has been the soundtrack of summer mornings. Once abundant in the eastern United States, bobwhite quail populations have declined by 85%. Calculations suggest that the remaining population could be halved over the next decade.

Many other grassland birds, such as grasshopper sparrows and eastern meadowlarks, are also disappearing at an alarming rate. Taken together, grassland birds have experienced the worst population declines of any North American bird.

Why does this happen? In a word, habitat. Native grasslands in the United States, especially those east of the Great Plains, which once covered millions of acres, have almost completely disappeared. Some have been converted to farmland. Others have been allowed to regrow in forests, where shade from the tree canopy inhibits the growth of these grasses.

A bobwhite quail’s nest nestles in a clump of switchgrass, a native grass species also valuable for livestock forage. Photo courtesy of David Peters, CC BY-ND.

Still others have been planted with grasses native to Europe, Africa or Asia. These introduced grasses tend to be shorter than our tall native species and grow in dense, strong mats that cover the ground. The native species, on the other hand, are bunchgrass: they grow in clumps, with spaces between the plants that benefit many of these breeding birds, especially the bobwhite quail.

Native Grasses for Birds and Livestock

One solution to these declines relies on the concept of working land conservation – making farmland productive not only for livestock, but also for declining species such as grassland birds. A compelling opportunity for such an approach is to use some of the native grasses that have been lost in the eastern United States to provide pasture for livestock. Reintroducing these grasses to farms could benefit cattle producers as well as birds. My new book, Native Grass Forages for the Eastern United States, explains why and how these grasses can fit into farms.

I have combined my research on native grasses over the past 15 years at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture with the work of many other scientists who have accumulated over the past 100 years. Taken together, this research suggests that native grasses can not only be reintroduced, but can play a strategic role on our farms today.

Growing fodder requires fertilizers, diesel and seeds, all of which are becoming increasingly expensive. At the same time, climate change is making some parts of the United States wetter and others drier.

[RELATED: Farmers Struggle to Keep Up With the Rising Costs of Fertilizer]

Faced with these constraints, I see native grasses like bluestem as a promising solution. These grasses, which have grown in North America for millennia, are naturally well suited to the eastern United States, and I believe they can once again benefit family farms.

A sparrow perched on a big bluestem. Photo by Michael Dante Salazar, Shutterstock.

As I show in my book, these grasses have roots that can extend up to 8 to 10 feet deep into the ground. They are remarkably drought tolerant and can grow and thrive in soils with low fertility and high acidity.

Their large root systems also help increase organic matter in soils, making the soil healthier and more productive. The accumulation of organic matter, composed mainly of carbon, stores carbon in the soil rather than in the atmosphere.

But what about cattle? Many studies show that forage yields are high for these species. Cattle readily consume them and this diet produces significant gains in growing animals. This combination of high yields, large gains and low input requirements means that these forages can be produced profitably.

A recent study conducted here in Tennessee found strong animal performance for both steers and heifers, with the cost of feeding the animals only $0.29 per pound. That’s a pretty good deal: price ranges for many non-native forages can be $0.80 to $0.90 per pound, and purchased feeds can cost well over $2.00 per pound of gain. weight.

In this same study, we tracked the nesting success of two at-risk species associated with eastern pastures: grasshopper sparrows and field sparrows. We found that, compared to pastures growing a non-native grass species called tall fescue, native grass pastures produced between two and six times more fledgling birds per acre. This is the outcome that Working Land Conservation seeks to provide: more beef and more birds, all at a fair price.

make the change

The biggest challenge of growing native grasses is getting the grasses established. Converting existing pastures to native grasses requires extensive field renovation and a great deal of patience as the native grass seedlings develop. These species are slow starters.

Once they have a good root system under them they can grow fairly quickly, but until then they are vulnerable to weed pressure. And field conversion is not cheap, not least because of the cost of seed. However, farmers may receive financial support for planting native grasses from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

[RELATED: Report: Millions of Acres of Grassland Lost to Agriculture This Year]

As the world’s population grows, it will be difficult to produce enough nutrient-dense protein to feed everyone. Grasslands can cost-effectively produce high-quality dietary protein, while reducing atmospheric carbon and supporting North American grassland birds and other wildlife.

As King Solomon said long ago, there is nothing new under the sun. Native herbs aren’t new, but today I see them as a modern solution to some of our planet’s most pressing challenges.

Patrick Keyser is a professor of forestry, wildlife and fisheries and director of the Center for Native Grasslands Management at the University of Tennessee.


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