Eastern gamagrass could easily be classified as a grass for all seasons. Besides withstanding soggy soils, this deep-rooted grass is also drought tolerant and has a protein content that rivals alfalfa.
But it is far from being a new forage. So why haven't you heard of it?
The native species - one of the original prairie grasses the buffalo grazed 150 years ago - was overgrazed and plowed into oblivion until it was rediscovered in 1980 by a Missouri farmer. During a severe drought, he saw one green plant in his pasture. It was eastern gamagrass.
"We call it a 'new, old grass,'" says Charles Foy, a scientist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, MD. "It is an old grass that is getting a new start."
Until recently, poor seed production limited the plant's acceptance. Today, eastern gamagrass's popularity as a high-protein forage is rising as seed is more available and germination is possible through proper wetting and chilling, according to Foy.
Powerful Potential Called the "queen of the grasses," eastern gamagrass ranks near the top in forage quality, testing up to 17% protein and 65% TDN (total digestible nutrients). A warm-season perennial, eastern gamagrass grows as high as its relative corn, with yields ranging from 2-10 tons/acre, depending on soil type, fertility and precipitation.
Its growth potential is one of its greatest attributes, says Chester Dewald, an agronomist with the USDA-ARS Southern Plains Range Research Station in Woodward, OK. By calling on root reserves, eastern gamagrass regrowth can be up to 2 in. a day, Dewald says.
A specialized root system also helps the grass adapt to problem soils. "It grows in just about any soil," says Foy.
Scientists say the grass has air-filled root passages called aerenchyma that can penetrate so deep they draw water that shallow-rooted plants can't reach. These roots can extend down beyond 7 ft., allowing eastern gamagrass to grow in saturated soil, penetrate compacted layers, and tolerate both drought and floods.
Foy believes eastern gamagrass's adaptibility to waterlogged soils makes it a natural choice for buffers along streambanks as well. "It's a bunchgrass so the roots will establish a firm hold and prevent soil erosion. And because it's a perennial there's no need for annual replantings," says Foy.
It provides great wildlife habitat too, he adds.
Managing Gamagrass * Eastern gamagrass performs well from southern Nebraska to Texas and eastward to the Atlantic. Limited research has been done on gamagrass winter hardiness in the Northern Plains. It matures earlier than most warm season grasses, and is ready to be grazed by mid-May in Oklahoma, Dewald says.
* But, because eastern gamagrass is so palatable, it's easily overgrazed. "You've got to manage it like a crop," Foy cautions.
Dewald recommends eastern gamagrass be grazed in pure stands in a short-duration rotation system. He says animals should be moved every five days and then pastures should be rested for 30-45 days. Grazing should be controlled to leave no less than 6- to 8-in. stubble height. Closer grazing will reduce plant vigor and eventually reduce the stand.
* "If you don't want to manage the grass, then you probably shouldn't use it for grazing," says Dewald. He suggests haying or cutting it for silage as less management-intensive options.
* Getting a stand of eastern gamagrass established requires an understanding of the seed. Seed dormancy is common and germination is poor, says Dewald. Seeds must be chilled to germinate. Therefore, dryland plantings need to be in mid-January or February. (Prechilled seed can be purchased for irrigated plantings in April or May.)
* Eastern gamagrass seed can be planted with a row crop planter or conventional grain drill. Dewald suggests planting in rows 36-48 in. apart at a 1-in. planting depth.
* Dewald advises planting rates of 10 lbs. bulk seed per acre or 7.5 lbs. PLS (pure live seed) per acre. He estimates $75/acrefor seed cost.
* For maximum growth potential nitrogen will need to be added to stands annually, Dewald says. When properly managed, stands last indefinitely.
For more information on eastern gamagrass contact Chester Dewald at 405/256-7449 or Charles Foy at 301/504-5522.