By Ronnie Weston| February 15, 2013 at 1:34 PM CST - Updated July 12 at 5:57 AM
JONESBORO (AGFC) – There are many native warm season grasses in Arkansas. The most commonly promoted native grasses for wildlife are big and little bluestem, indiangrass, sideoats grama, switchgrass and eastern gamagrass.
One of the primary benefits of these species is the plant structure since these grasses grow in bunches and open space at ground level allowing wild turkey poults, quail chicks, rabbits and other small animals to travel and feed easily throughout the field. If not mowed, disked or burned before fall, these grasses can provide excellent cover during winter. Suitable cover is often a more limiting factor than food for species such as turkey, rabbits, quail, and grassland songbirds and offers bedding habitat for deer.
Native warm season grasses can be utilized as forage for livestock under a prescribed grazing plan and provide wildlife benefits. They are highly tolerant to drought and can provide forage insurance for livestock producers.
Once you've decided to establish these grasses, the first step is to contact an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Private Lands Biologist for additional information and a possible site visit. The biologist can provide written information on how to establish these special grasses.
Several key factors play important roles in stand establishment to be successful. The first factor is that these grasses do not compete well with non-native grasses (tall fescue, Bermuda grass, Johnson grass, etc.). Competition control using herbicides is a must for a successful stand of native warm season grasses. The second factor, and one of the most important, is that these grasses cannot be planted more than a ¼-inch deep. Special planters are required to plant these natives. The AGFC has planters to loan for this purpose. Thirdly is planting too late. The optimal planting dates for native warm season grasses are from Dec. 1 through mid-April.
Management after establishment is critical for wildlife benefits. It is important to manage your established stand utilizing management practices in order to set back succession and maintain an open structure. Management practices will normally begin in the third year of a well-established stand, unless competition control is necessary. Utilizing prescribed fire on ⅓ to ½ of the field is recommended. Disking in blocks is an option, but it can encourage undesirables such as Johnson grass, fescue or Bermuda grass. Management practices should not be conducted during the primary nesting season of April 1 to July 15 – later is better. If you want to enhance your property to attract and hold more wildlife then consider adding native warm season grasses to your management plan.
For more information on establishing these grasses for wildlife habitat improvement and programs to help, contact an AGFC private lands biologist at: Fort Smith, 877-478-1043; Harrison, 870-741-8600 ext. 114; Hope, 877-777-5580; Calico Rock, 877-297-4331; Little Rock, 877-470-3650; Brinkley, 877-734-4581; Jonesboro, 877-972-5438 and Monticello, 877-367-3559.
Benefits of native grasses for wild turkey and other wildlife on your land by James Foster, AGFC Private Lands Biologist, Northeast Arkansas Area