Big Bluestem is a warm season, perennial bunchgrass with blue-green stems four to eight feet tall. It has been referred to as “ice cream for cows.”
Leslea and Brad Hodgson own and operate Root Prairie Galloways, where they raise Galloway beef cows and have big bluestem pastures that they want to protect from the encroachment of weeds into the bare areas between the grass clumps. In 2010, they received an NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher grant for $5,907 to experiment with techniques to control the gradual invasion of unwanted cool season grasses and to establish two prairie legumes native to the pasture for added nitrogen in the soil.
They set up a study to learn what effect a hard early spring graze on the dormant bluestem pasture would have on the existing and invading cool season grasses and forbs. Fencing and waterlines were installed to facilitate rotational grazing. Seeds of Illinois bundle flower and Purple prairie clover were broadcast onto the pasture to increase nitrogen levels.
The cattle were moved onto the bluestem pasture and through paddocks that measured from approximately 50’x 100 to 60’ x 100’. They adjusted the time the cattle spent in a paddock based on the amount of forage available for the cows. They varied their grazing pressure from 50,000 lbs./ac. the first year, to 181,000 lbs./ac. in year two.
As their project wrapped up, the Hodgsons reported that the grazing techniques and management that they used led to improved yields of the warm season grasses, in particular big bluestem. They also noted that the amount of duff and litter decreased significantly through the period of the study, as did the bare soil areas, which signaled to them that the plant community became more vigorous and the plant stand thicker.
View Leslea's presentation on this project, from the 2015 Farmers Forum, through NCR-SARE's YouTube playlist. Visit www.youtube.com/NCRSAREvideo for this and other videos.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant: