It often starts slowly, but picks up speed in its second year. By then it can yield up to 7 tons of forage per acre, with crude protein peaking as high as 22% and TDN averaging about 65%.
Eastern gamagrass can outyield alfalfa — and match its quality — when grown where the queen of forages doesn't thrive.
This native perennial warm-season relative of corn is well-suited for hay or silage production, greenchopping and even grazing. But acceptance of Pete, the first registered eastern gamagrass variety released in 1979, was limited. It required chilled seed at planting and often had poor first-year germination.
A variety released in 1995, Iuka IV, was genetically selected through four generations for better germination. But it, too, has gotten mixed reviews.
Glen Snell, a retired range management specialist with the Soil Conservation Service (now NRCS) says Iuka IV can be seeded into a dry, unworked seedbed in fall and will germinate the next spring. Snell sells certified, registered and foundation Iuka IV gamagrass seed. Over 170 plantings have been established in 21 states, he reports.
Gary Kilgore, an agronomist with Kansas State University's Southeast Area Extension Office in Chanute, KS, is also fond of eastern gamagrass.
“It's a very desirable grass,” says Kilgore. “I encourage producers to plant eastern gamagrass because it's a strong warm-season grass for haying or grazing.”
However, he cautions that establishment can still be a challenge — no matter the variety — and recommends that producers plant prechilled or chemically treated seed.
Kilgore says Iuka IV doesn't appear to emerge or yield significantly better than other varieties.
“By planting pretreated gamagrass seed, producers can ensure they will get good stands established the first year. Untreated seed will more likely take two years to establish,” says Kilgore.
Once the grass is established, most producers are pleased with it. From 1997 to 2000, Angus producers Joe and Andy Smith reseeded 200 acres of alfalfa to untreated Iuka IV. With alfalfa, the Smiths still had to buy hay — at a cost of over $10,000 annually — to get 200 cow-calf pairs through the winter at their Elk City, KS, ranch.
But in 2003, despite drought conditions, they harvested 350 tons of hay from the 200 gamagrass acres. Most of the hay came from the first cutting, with a limited number of acres cut a second time.
“This is the first time in several years that hay will not have to be purchased for our herds,” says Andy Smith.
The Smiths have also utilized some of their gamagrass acres to harvest seed and for grazing. Smith says they've been especially pleased with how the gamagrass performs in dry conditions and their shallow limestone soils.
Eastern gamagrass does well from northern Nebraska to south Texas and eastward to the Atlantic. It's ready to be hayed or grazed in the Southern Plains by late May.
Fall through February is the time to plant — especially untreated seed, which needs to endure some vernalization to germinate. A ¼-1" planting depth at a rate of 10 lbs pure live seed/acre is suggested. Certified seed typically costs $10/lb.
Weed control is critical the first year due to a large amount of bare ground. Chemicals that don't harm corn work well.
With annual nitrogen applications, gamagrass can yield 4.5 tons of dry matter per acre on upland soils; 6 tons/acre on bottomlands, says Kilgore. Spring burning can also help maximize production.
Because it's so palatable, gamagrass is easily overgrazed. Grazing should be controlled to leave no less than 6-8" of stubble.
Resting gamagrass stands 45 days before the average fall frost date to allow regrowth going into winter helps stands last indefinitely.
For more information, visit www.iuka.com.