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General Planting Guide for Warm Season Grasses
in the Northeast U.S. & Canada
Switchgrass is a tall-growing, warm season perennial grass that is native in much of the U.S.
History: Switchgrass was widespread in open areas before settlers populated an area, and remained in one place year after year. Their livestock were free roaming and would graze the new switchgrass growth in the spring before the new plants were tall enough to withstand defoliation. This mismanagement weakened the stands and eventually led to their demise. They were replaced by cool season grasses, such as bluegrass, tall fescue, and orchard grass, introduced from other countries. These cool season grasses grew much earlier in the spring so they could tolerate the early season grazing by cattle. As a result, native warm season grasses; i.e., switchgrass, were destroyed and can now only be found growing wild in abandoned sites, such as old cemeteries, railroad rights-of-way, and stream banks.
Warm season grasses usually take longer to establish than cool season grasses (orchard grass, timothy, smooth brome, etc.), but the stands have the potential to last much longer with less maintenance. There are multiple uses and benefits of warm season grasses. Primary uses are grazing, hay, conservation cover, and biomass production. The advantage of native warm season grasses is their ability to produce more biomass with less nutrient and water input. The quality of this forage or biomass is equal to, or better than, cool season grasses for many uses.
Secondary benefits of warm season grasses for wildlife vary based on the primary uses. In a grazing program, warm season grasses provide spring ground nesting habitat. In a hay program, they provide spring ground nesting habitat and, if only one cutting is made at the proper time, provide winter cover. As conservation cover and biomass production, they provide spring ground nesting habitat, summer forage, and winter cover.
With proper establishment techniques and management, warm season grasses will provide forage for grazing livestock through those summer slump months when cool season grasses go dormant or slow their growth tremendously. Warm season grasses can also provide excellent wildlife habitat. The extra effort required to establish warm season grasses is offset by the longevity that the stand provides.
Calvin L. Ernst, Switchgrass and Warm Season Grass Planting Guide, Ernst Conservation Seeds, Meadville, PA © 2007, all rights reserved.
Some information courtesy of:
USDA, NRCS, Warm-Season Grasses in Pennsylvania, Rev. March, 2004.
Dale D. Wolf and David A. Fiske, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Planting and Managing Switchgrass for Forage, Wildlife, and Conservation, Publication 418-013, 1995.
Ernst Conservation Seeds, LLP, 9006 Mercer Pike, Meadville, PA 16335
Call 800-873-3321 or 814-336-2404; Fax 814-336-5191
Copyright 2007, Ernst Conservation Seeds, LLP. All rights reserved.