Switchgrass isn't likely to be used for energy production for several years, but it can make excellent forage now if managed correctly, says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska extension forage specialist. “Switchgrass has been in the news lately as scientists research various options for biofuels. But, amid the headlines, don't overlook the benefits of this native warm-season grass for good pasture and hay,” he states.
Grazing usually should begin in June when switchgrass is about a foot tall, says Anderson. Switchgrass pasture needs careful management and must be grazed before seedstalks develop. Quality is high and palatability is good when switchgrass is young. Yearlings often gain 1.5-2 lbs/day during this time. After seedheads emerge, though, nutrient levels decline rapidly and animals refuse to eat much of it. Anderson says it works best to stock the pastures heavily so plants are grazed down to about 6” of stubble within three weeks. Pastures should then be allowed to regrow for around six weeks. Cattle producers should plan to graze regrowth about mid-August, being sure to leave at least 6” of stubble going into winter.
If cut for hay, switchgrass is very palatable and nutritious before, or just as, seedheads appear. It makes excellent hay for weaning calves or growing young stock. But, as with grazing, as plants become mature and stemmy, switchgrass hay becomes less desirable and may need to be ground to be used effectively, according to Anderson. If cattle can't graze it before seedheads appear, it should be cut for hay.
“Do not cut regrowth a second time for hay,” Anderson advises. “This will weaken stands. If regrowth is plentiful after an early hay harvest, graze regrowth lightly but leave 6” or more of stubble for winter.”