It may take patience, but once established, eastern gamagrass will reward growers with good-quality forage in early spring and throughout the usual summer slump.
This long-term warm-season perennial is used as a hay crop, for rotational grazing and for filter strips on conservation reserve land from northern Nebraska to south Texas and eastward to the Atlantic.
Its value in filter strips is what first got the attention, years ago, of Jimmy May, then a liaison wildlife biologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
“But gamagrass has a place in the forage world,” says May. “It can handle acidic soils and those too wet to grow alfalfa. It's a good, all-around grass that was native to much of the country, but got destroyed by plowing and overgrazing.”
To get a good stand, start with a clean field to reduce weed competition, and plant when there will be enough soil moisture, he says. “If you hit a period of dry weather in the spring, the seed could go dormant and won't come up well that year.”
The seed must be stratified, soaked and chilled before planting. “Some seed sources provide this service, but most don't. Make sure you know what you're getting when you buy seed.”
Since retiring nine years ago, May has been growing gamagrass for seed on his farm near Auburn, KY. “The seed often takes a good two weeks to emerge, and you need to give it the first year to develop a good root system.”
Take two cuttings the second year and three the third year, he recommends. Gamagrass requires less fertilizer than bermudagrass, and insect and disease problems have been minor.
Anderson County, KY, growers reluctant to give up acreage for a whole year were advised to plant gamagrass with corn, says Extension agent Tommy Yankey. “This worked, but the gamagrass got off to a slower start the first year due to shading from the corn.”
In the second year, Yankey saw the grass grow 5' tall by July 1. “It's still nutritionally sound to graze at that height, but we recommend you start grazing it when it's about 3' tall.
“Growers I worked with averaged about 6 tons of dry matter per acre in the second year,” he says. “In 2008 we had only about half that amount of rain, so the grass wasn't quite as fast-growing.”
Feeder calves gain well on gamagrass, he says. Georgia and Kentucky studies show average daily gains of 1.75 and 2 lbs, respectively, from calves on pasture May through early September.
The crop also fills a hay void, says Latham, KS, grower Damian Korte. He and brother Dallas have been raising gamagrass as a hay crop for seven years and have shipped bales to feeders in 18 states.
“It grows really fast in the spring. By the end of May, when we usually take our first cutting, the crop is often waist high,” he says. “Within just one week of cutting, it regrows about 1'.”
The brothers take two more cuttings — in early July and early September — averaging about five 4 × 4 × 8' bales per acre. “It doesn't have the density of other grasses and here in Kansas yields about 1½ tons of dry matter per cutting. Protein levels are between 14 and 18%.”
Korte has also discovered that the crop's seed is as valuable as the hay. The past three years he has harvested seed from his acreage and is selling it to other growers.
In general, seed prices range from $9 to $13/lb, depending on location and variety. Recommended seeding rates vary, but usually range from 8 to 12 lbs of pure live seed per acre.
Common eastern gamagrass varieties include PMK (known as Pete) and Iuka, which are based on wild populations found in the Plains states. But in the past decade, several hybrid varieties have been developed to overcome common growing challenges, including poor germination, inconsistent establishment and variable persistence.
Newer varieties include:
Highlander — Developed at Mississippi State University (2004), it has superior vigor and persistence compared to earlier varieties, and a high degree of tolerance to environmental stresses, including wet, heavy soils.
Verl — This Oklahoma variety (2005) produces more dry matter than Pete and 45% more seed, according to USDA-ARS trials.
Bumpers — Developed in Arkansas (2005), it is adapted to well-drained, fertile soils, but will tolerate wet conditions and a wide pH range. It's recommended for use in western Arkansas, southern Missouri and eastern Oklahoma.