A North Dakota study helps pinpoint protein and production peaks of grasses in the Northern Great Plains.

All forages are not created equal. During the growing season, forage production and protein levels of plant species can hit peaks and valleys like a roller coaster.

But recognizing the peaks and valleys of a plant's growth pattern is the key to a successful forage system, according to North Dakota State University (NDSU) rangeland management specialist Kevin Sedivec.

"Most ranchers look at a plant's production first because they want the most 'bang for their buck' in tonnage," says Sedivec. But he cautions that more may not necessarily be better. "Forage production tells you little about forage quality," he says.

Instead, producers should approach their forage choices by looking for a balance between production and protein. "What's important is the pounds of protein produced," says Sedivec.

By looking at protein and production curves, Sedivec says producers can narrow down which species to select for situations when they plan to hay in late July or if they want to graze in October.

Information from a cool-season grass study conducted near Hettinger, ND, can help producers do just that. The growth patterns of 25 grass varieties were followed with protein produced/acre pinpointed at intervals from May through October (see Table 1). Total herbage production was also measured by species (see Table 2).

"These are cool-season species that could be grown anywhere in the Northern Great Plains," says Sedivec. That includes the states of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and portions of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Cool season grasses are unique in that they are the first plants to green up in the spring, and often green up again when temperatures cool off in the fall.

What's On Top?

Below Sedivec suggests four grass species he believes offer a successful combination of protein and production.

* Crested wheatgrass (Nordan)

An early maturing, drought-tolerant bunchgrass, crested wheatgrass is still one of the best options for early spring grazing, Sedivec says. "Russian wildrye also offers early spring grazing, but it's a one time high, so I wouldn't recommend it for spring use," he adds. Crested wheatgrass typically offers the most protein/acre from late April through mid-June. Sedivec recommends the Nordan variety because it out-produces other crested wheatgrass varieties.

* Basin wildrye (Magnar)

Native to much of the western U.S., basin wildrye reaches its peak in protein/acre from mid-June through August.

"It offers both quantity and quality," says Sedivec. A tall grass, it also can be used as a grass windbreak for wind erosion or to control blowing snow and provide cover for wildlife.

However, in wetter climates basin wildrye is susceptible to leaf and stem rusts. Basin wildrye is also a difficult species to establish, according to Sedivec.

* Altai wildrye (Prairieland)

Altai wildrye is one of the few plant species that holds its nutritive value into fall and winter. This winter-hardy bunchgrass retains its coarse leaves even after snowfall.

This species offers opportunities to extend the grazing season into December, says Sedivec.

He notes that both varieities of Russian wildrye also held their protein well in the fall months, but produced less herbage than altai wildrye. * Pubescent wheatgrass (Manska)

Another late maturing species, pubescent wheatgrass is one Sedivec recommends for haying.

A fast growing species, pubescent wheatgrass establishes readily and is great for wildlife habitat.

Pubescent varieties are more drought tolerant than intermediate varieties, and Manska in particular usually has higher forage quality.

Hitting The Highs "Selecting species that offer peaks at different times in the growing season can help producers design an overall forage system," says Sedivec.

For example, for producers in the drier, western states he recommends grazing crested wheatgrass early, then moving to basin wildrye mid-June and finishing the grazing season on altai wildrye pastures. "On that rotation you could graze cattle from early May all the way into December," says Sedivec (see timeline page 28-29).

For producers in states with more moisture, he suggests replacing crested wheatgrass with smooth bromegrass, and then following the basin and altai wildrye rotations. "This study was conducted on a dry site and smooth bromegrass may have done better had their been more moisture," says Sedivec.

Sedivec recommends the Cottonwood variety versus other smooth bromegrass varieties.

Other Suggestions "If you're looking at a native grass mix, western wheatgrass and green needlegrass are species to consider," says Sedivec. "They weren't on top, but they weren't on the bottom in the study. They offer a lot of potential for summer and fall use."

Bunchgrasses, like pubescent wheatgrass and basin wildrye, work well for wildlife habitat, according to Sedivec. The dense cover is excellent for nesting and brood rearing. Altai wildrye is also good for wildlife since its primary use will be in the fall and would be undisturbed most of the spring and summer, he says.

Sedivec notes that the variety or cultivar within a species is also important to consider. For example, Nordon crested wheatgrass fared better in the study than the other two crested wheatgrass cultivars, Hycrest and Ephraim.

A similar study is being planned with warm-season grasses.