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Forage & Grazing

Native grasslands provide excellent benefits to the rancher, wildlife, and soil. Modern cattle and livestock love the nutrient-rich grasses that sustained the buffalo for centuries.

Grazing diverse natives is as good as it gets

There are two approaches to planting natives for grazing. The Diversity Option consists of planting an assortment of native species including warm season grasses, cool season grasses, legumes, and other forbs. The Conventional Option involves planting one or two species of the native warm season grasses in a pasture.

We believe that the Diversity Option maximizes the benefits of native planting. However, a few added challenges in establishment and management of the diversity lead some to prefer the Conventional Option.

Diversity Option: high-quality forage year-round

Diverse native grasslands offer many benefits to the rancher, wildlife, and soil health.

Benefits of diversity

For the rancher

Diverse native grasslands can produce twice as much forage (Read the study published in Science Volume 314, 2006.) which is like doubling the size of a ranch! It can also offer high quality forage that is free of toxic endophytes, put good gains on grazing animals, and offer flexibility in grazing dates.

For the wildlife

Diverse native grasslands that are properly grazed provide the same habitat wildlife were accustomed to prior to colonization of the West. The native plants provide excellent food and shelter. Grazing keeps the plants vegetative for the wildlife and creates variation in the plant structure.

For soil health

A properly grazed diverse native grassland restores the soil health and productivity that was in our grassland soils before settlers plowed and overgrazed the grasslands. By planting with diversity, you can increase soil organic matter and healthy microbe populations, and create an armor on the soil with plant material.
Learn more about our experiences with Diverse Native Grasslands by checking out our videos and articles.

What to plant

In a grassland, each plant species has a unique niche. For instance, each plant has a distinctive season of growth Some are green and growing in the cool weather of spring and fall, while others prefer the hot weather of summer. So, you want to choose a mix of plants—some that grow in the cool seasons and others that grow in the warm season of the year. You want plants growing and collecting sunlight as much of the year as possible.

Not only do plants differ in their season of growth, but each also has a unique root system. Some plants are deep rooted while others are shallow rooted. Some have fibrous roots while others are tap rooted. Choosing plants with varied root systems means that the soil moisture can be utilized as efficiently as possible to produce forage no matter when the rain comes or don’t come.

There are other differences in plants that should also be considered and included. For instance, native legumes provide “free” nitrogen fertilizer to the pasture.

By including a mix of tall and short plants, those with fat leaves and skinny leaves, plants that stand upright and others that trail across the ground, and plants with other differences, you will capture more sunlight and water and grow more forage than with a fescue monoculture.

forage chart, cool season grass, warm season grasses, forbs and legumes, Hamilton Native Outpost


There are generally 3 methods to establish a diverse native pasture. Choosing a method depends on the initial condition of the pasture and the desired mix composition in the planting.
One challenge with managing natives is controlling undesirable plants. For this reason, diverse plantings often work best on areas coming out of crops where the weeds have been controlled well, areas that have never been planted to introduced plants such as Fescue, Serecia Lespedeza, Bermuda Grass, Smooth Brome, or Johnson Grass (e.g. a savanna restoration that has been forested in the recent history), or areas with multiple years of control of weed seeds in the seedbank.

Grazing Diverse Native Grasslands

Native grasslands must be grazed with care, but this does not mean that native pastures are unproductive. The difference between good grazing and bad grazing depends on three factors:

  • Timing — the time of year that the plant is grazed
    A diverse grassland should not be repeatedly grazed at the same time of year.
  • Frequency — a measure of the length of time a plant has to regrow before the next graze
    A diverse grassland needs to be allowed to fully recover after a grazing event before the next grazing episode.
  • Intensity — the degree of utilization; the amount of the plant that was removed in a grazing event
    The more intensely a plant was grazed, the less frequently it should be grazed. However, a grazing event in which the plants are grazed very lightly can be repeated more often.

Conventional Option: high-quality forage in summer

In areas such as the Fescue Belt, where most forage is fescue grass, summer means low forage production. However, warm season native grasses such as Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, Eastern Gama Grass, and Switchgrass produce large quantities of high-quality forage in the summer.

For farms and ranches that put up hay, the warm season grasses are ready to be baled while the weather is good for baling (warm and dry), as opposed to cool season grasses which need to be baled when the weather is typically rainy and cooler.

The native warm season grasses thrive under low fertility and do not require large fertility inputs compared to introduced grasses like Bermuda Grass or Caucasian Bluestem. Note: If you are removing significant amount of nutrients as happens when baling and removing hay from a field, the removed fertility should be replaced.

What to plant

Switchgrass and Eastern Gama Grass produce large quantities of forage earlier than other warm season grasses. Choose one of these if the grazing system has a good balance of warm and cool season grasses.

Although they may produce slightly less tonnage, Big Bluestem and Indiangrass peak in production later. They are ideal for cool season grass dominated operations, and they also work well mixed together.

Little Bluestem will produce a smaller quantity of forage, but it can be a great part of a mix on drier areas of the field.

Even in these conventional plantings of native warm season grass, you can add some native cool season plants. Among other things, the cool seasons and warm seasons mixed together make better use of the ground as a solar collector because the sunlight is being used to produce forage in cool and warm weather. The blend is better for soil health, creates better wildlife habitat, and expedites nutrient recycling.

forage chart, cool season grass, warm season grasses, big bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, eastern gamagrass, Hamilton Native Outpost
Data from NRCS Code 528, 2007.

Each grass has its season of growth. This graph illustrates the percent of the plant’s growth that occurs in each month. Cool season grasses begin their growth early in the spring. Warm season grasses wait for the warm temperatures of summer to produce. There are differences in timing of production even among the warm season grasses.

When choosing which to plant in a grazing system, consider the growth curve of the forages already in place and the curve of the forage to be planted. Make sure they complement each other and that quality forage is being produced throughout the growing season.


One downside of the traditional approach to native warm season grass establishment is that at least a year of production will be lost for the plants to establish. However, the Panoramic herbicide (also known as Plateau or imazapic) has decreased establishment time for Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, Little Bluestem, and Sideoats Grama. Eastern Gama Grass and Switchgrass are usually established with the traditional approach.

Grazing Native Warm Season Grasses

Native grasses must be grazed with care. They do not tolerate overgrazing or continuous, close grazing. It is imperative to move the livestock off of the field to allow the plant to regrow after being grazed. This is usually accomplished with a managed grazing system (also called management-intensive grazing, cell grazing, rotational grazing, etc).

The rule of thumb on native warm season grasses is to rest the pasture at least 45 days before allowing the stock to graze the pasture again. The graze period on a pasture should probably be no longer than five days in the growing season.

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