Native Prairie Vegetation as Pasture Forage

Why have Native Pasture?

The primary reasons we chose to have native pasture was because irrigating and managing an “improved pasture” was an expense we did not have the ability to take on. While we do have access to a well, irrigation of a field is an ongoing expense, especially in a region with frequent droughts. Further, we wanted to limit the use of pesticides and herbicides. We only use herbicides at this time against mesquite saplings, due to their non-native invasive growth.

Native prairie species are evolutionary able to handle drought and lower rainfall and higher temperatures with various adaptations. The extensive root system of many grasses and forbs allows them to utilize deep moisture, prevent erosion, and build the soil. For us that means 4 years since moving in, the field performed amazing during the May 2021 rainfalls. Over 10 inches of rain fell in the Abilene area, and our field was able to absorb almost all that rain with little puddling on the surface. The puddlings that did exist disappeared after about a week.

The diversity of native grasslands also aids in being more resilient to changing climate patterns. Some species will do better one year over the next, but that allows for a mix of species to be able to coexist and handle the weather extremes that will become more common with climate change going into the future.

Native Prairie Species

The native prairie species available will depend on the geography, environment, as well as past and present management conditions. Some native species exist readily in spaces that are cultivated, while others have all but disappeared from many regions. The grassland prairies of the US are extremely endangered and fragmented, mostly due to agricultural practices of crop farming and pastures consisting of only a few species of plants. Restoring grasslands is appropriate where it historically made most sense. In the drier parts of the Midwest, where lower precipitation and fires limited woody growth, the grasslands thrived. Fewer grasslands historically existed east of the Mississippi river due to its abundance of rainfall.

Selecting what is best for your pasture will entail having to do research. For Texas, many ecoregions exist, with woods, prairie, marshes, desert, shrub, and savannahs all being part of the historical environment. Find your ecoregion in your location first, then look up native species that exist or did exist in your area. Within Texas many species are able to be found across large swaths of the state, especially grasses and flowers. But some are more common in one area than others. Contacting your local or state agricultural outreach/extension agencies can be a great place to start. They often have guides available or know where to point you to find more information for your particular locale.

Some common native perennial grass species:

  • Buffalo grass
  • Big Bluestem
  • Little Bluestem
  • Sideoats Grama
  • Grama grass species
  • Panicum grass species

Some native nongrass species:

  • Maximillian sunflower
  • Common and Giant Ragweed
  • Bundleflower (Legume)
  • Antelope and other milkweeds
  • Indianflowers
  • Various cacti species

Non-Native Species

Non-native species have been introduced in many environments around the world. However, as a landowner, you will have to decide whether to take on the time and expense in removing non-native species or not. Some non-native species are invasive, but others are not. Some may become invasive if allowed an opportunity to grow in a degraded space, while others will blend in with the background flora. Consider the “bastard cabbage“. This species will bloom every year, and if the area is open and clear of vegetation may form a dense monoculture. Pollinators, such as bees, will visit the plant in spring.

So is it worth removing? Possibly, depends, maybe. Each non-native has to be analyzed in how invasive it can be, how well it will do in the environment, how native plants compete with it, it’s impact on your animals and wildlife (such as poisonous species), and the expenses involved with removal. Going back to the bastard cabbage, if you wanted to remove it from a pasture with herbicides, the herbicides recommended may also kill native species. Other activities such as spot treatments, manual removal, and reseeding affected areas with native species should also be considered.

For us, we mainly combat one particular species, non-native mesquite saplings. The cost of treating mesquite trees increases dramatically the older, taller, and wider a particular tree is. As such, we leave the large trees alone except to remove branches or dead trees. Saplings are spot treated in the spring or fall and then cut to limit the woody tree creep. Bastard cabbage is removed manually with a long hoe if it becomes monocultural, and the scrappings fed to the sheep. Still others, such as sweet clover, are left entirely alone. Sweet clover can be quite explosive in growth in it’s second year, but serves as a valuable legume food source for the sheep to consume.

Non-native species we have encountered:

  • Mesquite Trees
  • Bermuda grass
  • Johnson grass (Pictured below)
  • Sweet Clover (Pictured last photo in this post)
  • Bastard Cabbage

Establishing a Native Pasture

If you want to establish a native pasture, the ways to go about it can vary quite significantly. But a few things will be required: seeding an area, keeping back weeds and invasive species, and patience. Many species in a native pasture will take two years or more to reach their full potential. As a whole unit, it can take up to five years or more to have a system of native pasture that can be maintained. On top of that, prescribed burning may be something to consider periodically as part of maintenance.

The use of an expert opinion can be invaluable for your pasture, especially if it involves dozens of acres that you want to convert. There exist many guides in Texas for ways to go about pasture restoration, that a single post will not be suffice to cover them all. Links are provided as resources to learn from and develop ideas and a knowledge bank. However, getting advice from your county or state agriculture agencies can make sure you’re on the right track.

We were fortunate that the field was plowed and cleared when we moved in during late winter 2017. It allowed us a small window where we did get native seed broadcasted. However as we did not have the ability to use herbicides or even a tractor to mow, the weeds still took over the first summer. The weeds grew to be over five feet tall and higher, the three sheep at the time naturally could not keep up. We eventually contracted with a local man to mow our field twice a year; but still had to do this, along with keeping a low population of sheep to not rundown the field until 2020. If we had to do this again, we would sort out finding someone to at least mow our field multiple times a year before it became too tall to almost handle. Even now in 2021, we still have patches of tall weeds that develop; but the overall system is now clear and becoming grass-dominated.

But challenges will continue no matter if you have a native or otherwise pasture. Undesirable species of plants can spread by humans, wind, birds, livestock, underground via roots, and more. Vigilance is required with regular checks on the pasture with each season. We regularly are out in the field each day because we move the sheep fencing in rotation. For us this allows us a set area to look around in, note it down, and remove plants as they come about. Other plants, like Johnson grass, are typically removed as they get tall. They usually grow taller than the rest of our field at the moment, so are easy to spot. If using herbicides to remove plants, follow instructions and labels, wait for the appropriate time so you’re more likely to kill the plant(s) in question.

Overall, a native pasture can be very beneficial, not only for your livestock but wildlife as well. The diversity of plants in grasses, flowers, and forbs attract wildlife such as turkey and deer, a bonus too if you’re a hunter. Most livestock will do fine on a native pasture, but establishing one can take several years to see the full benefits. If you wish to start a native pasture, dig in and do research, reach out to experts, and weigh your options.

Resources:

What to Plant in Pasture (Texas A&M AgriLife) – PDF

Guidelines for Native Grassland Restoration Projects (Texas Parks and Wildlife) – PDF

Native Pasture Restoration from a Bermuda and Bahia grass System – PDF

Common Flora of East Texas – PDF; many of the species found in here are common throughout Texas

Wildlife Seed Mixes at Turner Seed, as an example of the variety of seed available

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *