The seasons are about to change again. For producers in the Southern Great Plains that often means a lack of perennial grass for cattle to graze into the winter and spring.

Traditionally, wheat pastures are grazed during this time, but perennial cool-season forages are gaining popularity as winter and spring pastures, says Larry Redmon, Oklahoma State University Extension forage specialist.

"We have two to three years of data that indicate there are cool-season species that offer a lot of potential," says Redmon. Wheat may no longer be the best option, he adds.

"Producers traditionally had a wheat base because of the USDA's commodity support programs targeted toward wheat," says Redmon. "When Freedom to Farm came along about four years ago, producers could plant any forage species they wanted. A lot of them started looking at perennials. Perennials are generally less costly than planting an annual crop."

Range scientist Bob Gillen, USDA-ARS Southern Plains Range Research Station in Woodward, OK, says cool-season perennial grasses haven't been planted because of a perceived biological problem.

"In the past, it looked like cool-season perennials weren't well adapted to the warmer climate of the South. But some of that research may have been colored by the drought of the '50s. At that time, cool-season grasses dropped out of favor," says Gillen.

But recent studies have researchers and producers taking another look. "We've got some better genetic material now. And producers are realizing if they don't have to re-establish annual wheat they can save some costs," says Gillen.

Not counting the cost during establishment year, Redmon says a cool-season perennial grass pasture can save producers $40/acre/year compared to wheat. Those savings are realized because less equipment and labor are required.

Year-Round Grazing "In our part of the world we can come close to 12 months of grazing," says Oklahoma's Redmon. "With proper planning and species selection, we can minimize the need for hay and supplementation in most years."

Redmon is currently looking at 25 cool-season species that may have potential for the Southern Great Plains. That includes the southwest half of Kansas, most of Oklahoma, north Texas and the Texas Panhandle.

Presently, he says there are three species in general that show the greatest potential as forages to complement a year-round grazing system (see Table 1 and 2). Based on literature, producer input and field trials, Redmon says those species include:

* Pubescent wheatgrass The pubescent wheatgrasses appear to have more heat and drought tolerance than most species, and they also have good cold tolerance, says Redmon.

He recommends two varieties, Luna and Manska, both of which have been recommended for CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) seedings in Nebraska and the Dakotas.

This species is mildly rhizomonous, and therefore will spread to make a nice stand over time, says Redmon.

Pubescent wheatgrass could be grazed from September through May. "It's a nice transition grass for April and May before going on to warm-season pastures," suggests Redmon.

"We have limited animal performance data, but it's equivalent to what you could get with wheat," he says.

The downside right now to pubescent wheatgrass is cost. "Seed prices are high due to demand for CRP seedings," says Redmon. But he believes supply will eventually catch up with demand and bring the price back down in the next few years.

* Bromegrass A species that may surprise many producers is bromegrass, says Redmon. "When I first came to Oklahoma I was told it wouldn't grow here. It's been around a long time and largely ignored."

He recommends the Lincoln smooth bromegrass variety introduced in 1942 that's been used from Nebraska and Kansas into Canada.

As a sod-forming grass, this smooth bromegrass variety is high in crude protein and digestibility, says Redmon. Although it has a shorter productive season, Redmon says it is good for haying or grazing. He's even grazed it in April and May when it's in seed production.

Not quite as drought and cold tolerant as the pubescent wheatgrasses, Redmon says bromegrass has done fine in the drought they've had this year and in the past. "If we had a multiple year drought, we'd probably lose it, but wheat wouldn't be growing either," he says.

Meadow bromegrass (Regar) has also done well in field trials, says Redmon.

* Paiute orchardgrass Another surprise species is Paiute orchardgrass. "We typically don't think of orchardgrass as adapted to the Southern Plains," says Redmon. "But I know of some five- to six-year-old fields that have been properly managed and are doing well."

Not as heat and cold tolerant as wheatgrass and bromegrass, orchardgrass needs to be planted on a better site, with deeper soil and more moisture, says Redmon.

A bunchgrass, this species has excellent forage nutritive value, Redmon says. And, seed price is one-third of the cost of pubescent wheatgrass at the present time.

Redmon says a complementary forage system could include any of these three cool-season components for grazing October through April with native warm- season pastures being grazed from May through September.

"These perennials have a lot longer growing season than wheat, so that opens more grazing options," says Redmon.

He suggests utilizing cool-season pastures for stockers prior to or after coming off wheat pastures. Or having stockers graze cool-season pastures through the winter.

In a cow-calf operation, Redmon says cattle can spend time on dormant natives, and every third day let them graze a cool-season pasture for a day.

When putting together a forage system, Redmon says not to rule out other cool-season species. "For example, we've always considered tall fescue to need 36 in. of precipitation, but we're finding it doing well in more arid areas. There are a lot of species we think can work, but only time will tell," he says.

With future research, Redmon hopes to have more animal performance data too.

The Test Of Time When establishing cool-season perennials, Redmon cautions against sites with deep sands or that are shallow and rocky.

"I suggest establishing these grasses on marginal wheat ground," he says. "From an environmental standpoint, returning that land to permanent grass cover is a lot more friendly. From a production standpoint, you will significantly decrease your input costs."

Redmon also suggests producers consider overseeding species with an annual or forage legume, or even other perennial grass species.

"If a producer plants three or four species in a mix, one of those will rise to the top over time," says Redmon. "When you don't know a producer's land or his management practices, that may be the best recommendation."

As for the drought, Redmon says the cool-season species he's working with still show promise even after two to three consecutive dry years.

"This summer will have been a tremendous test. I've got some stands that I'm still going to put nitrogen on, and if we get moisture we should be ready to go. The advantage of a perennial in a drought year is that it's a mature plant that is already established. All it needs is water.

"The bottom line is that producers must practice both good grazing management and proper fertility," says Redmon. Both are critical to stand life.

"You can't graze this down to the ground like wheat, oats or annual rye," he says.

He recommends leaving at least 4 in. of stubble in the pasture. And he says producers must fertilize every year according to soil tests.

"If you're not going to manage these grasses, don't plant them because it will have been an expensive educational experience," says Redmon.

Cool-season forages that are better adapted to the hot, dry conditions of the Southern Great Plains may one day be a reality thanks to research being conducted at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK.

"We are focusing on getting improved cool-season varieties in the hands of producers," says forage grass breeder Andy Hopkins. "There's a need for it."

Hopkins is a member of the Noble Foundation's Forage Biotechnology Group that is working to enhance cool-season forages through genetic manipulation.

"The challenge with cool-season forages in the Southern Great Plains is getting them to be perennials," says Hopkins. His research group is looking for varieties that are persistent even after a long period without moisture.

"We don't need forage production in the summer months from cool-season species, but we do need these plants to survive and to start producing in September," says Hopkins.

Survival Of The Fittest Finding those species that are most adapted to hot, dry conditions is one of Hopkins' first objectives.

Hopkins planted more than 25 cool-season species, put them under heavy grazing pressure and this fall will collect information on which species survived.

Electronic data loggers have also been buried in grass plots to gauge soil temperatures.

"We're testing the hypothesis that soil temperature is related to the persistence of cool-season perennial grasses," Hopkins says. "Our 'hot soil' may cause the plants to respire more, killing off growing points and roots."

Hopkins hopes to identify some cool-season grass strains that are more tolerant of higher soil temperatures.

But he warns producers not to get too excited too early about the work under way. "Eight to 12 years from now we hope to have improved varieties that have been tested, that we know how to manage and that we have animal performance information on," says Hopkins.