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Native Warm Season Grasses
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been instrumental in preventing sediment and excess nutrients from entering our local waterways since its implementation in the 1985 Farm Bill. While not initially established to provide wildlife habitat, many studies have documented that the increase in herbaceous buffers and large blocks of habitat have benefitted some declining grassland birds and other wildlife.
But not all land planted CRP habitat is equal. Landowners have options when considering what areas of their farm to set aside and what to species of grass and wildflowers to plant. Local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) personnel help guide landowners to the conservation practices that best fit each project and what species of plants to install. One choice landowners must make is between two groups of grasses: native warm season grasses (NWSG) or exotic cool season grasses (CSG). Differences between these two grass types are substantial and their value for wildlife are dramatically different.
Because NWSGs are adapted to local growing conditions such as soil types, temperatures, nutrients and rainfall, they are more resilient to the effects of drought and disease outbreaks. NWSG are also better at providing a diverse habitat for wildlife due to their varied heights and style of growth. Native perennial WSG grow in clumps which gives annual flowering plants room to bloom and also provides open ground for smaller wildlife species (such as grassland birds and rabbits) to maneuver between clumps. This is particularly critical for Northern Bobwhites, since as soon as the hour-old chicks leave the nest they need to forage in areas of bare ground while remaining concealed by vegetation above.
Roots for NWSG grow deeper than those of CSG, this allows them to reach more water and nutrients, decrease soil compaction, increase water filtration and prevent soil erosion. Overall biomass is far greater for NWSGs compared to CSGs which allows the plant to sequester more carbon and because 90% of the biomass is below the ground very little carbon is lost when the grasses are burned.
Europeans began to settle the mid-Western prairies in the late 1800s and immediately started to convert large tracts of NWSG to crop production and promote the growth of European CSGs for pasture. At the same time, they began suppressing fire which led to the increase of CSGs throughout the region. CSGs are still the preferred forage grass for cattle, but more ranchers are seeing the benefits of WSG and adding it to the forage rotation for their cattle. In the mid-Atlantic CSGs are commonly planted in buffers, filter strips and large blocks of habitat when NWSGs would simply be much better for the native wildlife. CSGs do not form distinct clumps, think of your lawn, but rather spread out forming a dense tangle of vegetation eliminating areas of open ground and inhabiting the growth of annual plants. The dominant CSG out compete native vegetation which decreases plant biodiversity which leads to lower wildlife diversity.
If adding valuable wildlife habitat to your property is a top concern coupled with improving water quality then planting native warm season grasses is the way to go. Not only will numerous species of wildlife benefit, water quality will improve, but you will also have a beautiful native habitat on your property.
- NWSG have their peak growing rates during the summer, when CSG such as Tall Fescue and Orchard Grass are dormant.
- Depending on soil type and conditions NWSG can take 1-3 years to mature.
- NWSG set seed in the late summer and then the above ground portion of the plant dies back during the winter months.
- Due to the aggressive nature and rapid growth of CSG they can beneficial in areas susceptible to high rates of soil erosion. More often than not NWSG will perform just as well as CSG.
- CSG are non-native and have very little wildlife value.
- CSG grow during the cooler months and set seed prior to the warm summer months.