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Warm Season Grasses for Conservation Plantings in the West Gulf Coastal Plain

The RCI forage harvester collecting biomass data on switchgrass plots at the East Texas Plant Materials Center.Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) are four native, warm season, perennial grasses common throughout the West Gulf Coastal Plain of eastern Texas, eastern Oklahoma, western Louisiana, and southern Arkansas.  These deep-rooted grasses serve multiple roles in conservation plantings from wildlife habitat improvement and forage production to preventing soil erosion and improving water quality.

There are many warm season grass cultivars and prevarietal releases of the forementioned grasses commercially available with a wide range of origins.  Selecting the best adapted warm season grass for natural resource conservation is important to the planting success.  The NRCS East Texas Plant Materials Center (ETPMC) in Nacogdoches, Texas, conducted a 5-year evaluation of commercially available cultivars and prevarietal germplasms of these warm-season grasses to determine their adaptation to the West Gulf Coastal Plain.  Grasses were evaluated for stand persistence, disease and insect resistance, biomass production, and overall vigor.  

Switchgrass cultivars proved the most widely adapted, with all cultivars performing well during the evaluation. ‘Alamo’ and ‘Kanlow’ displayed excellent vigor, indicating the potential to dominate other species in conservation plantings. They are best suited for forage. ‘Cave-in-Rock’ and ‘Blackwell’, are more suitable choices for conservation cover in wildlife habitat management areas but will not persist without proper grazing management.   

Indiangrass cultivars, ‘Lometa’ and ‘Americus’, were very productive while ‘Osage’ showed excellent stand survival but lacks the productivity of Lometa and Americus. ‘Rumsey’ and Cheyenne did not perform well due to their susceptibility to rust pathogens, poor persistence and vigor and therefore, they are not recommended for the West Gulf Coastal Plain.

OZ-70 Germplasm was the most productive of the big bluestem varieties with ‘Rountree’ and ‘Kaw’ producing acceptable yield.  All three big bluestems showed good persistence, disease resistance and similar protein content.  Poor seed quality may have resulted in poor stands of ‘Earl’.  Additional plantings are needed to verify its adaptation and conservation use in the West Gulf Coastal Plain.  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Coastal Plains Germplasm little bluestem, developed at the ETPMC, proved to be the best adapted little bluestem.  It produced the highest yields and had the greatest persistence. OK Select Germplasm showed favorable results and is a suitable choice for the West Gulf Coastal Plain when Coastal Plains Germplasm is not available.  ‘Cimarron’ and ‘Aldous’ failed to persist and are not recommended for conservation use in the region.

For more information on the performance of these warm season grass cultivars and prevarietal releases at the ETPMC please see the final study report.  For additional information on specific species of plants mentioned, please see the USDA PLANTS database.  Technical information and guidance on the use of conservation plants to address resource concerns can be found on the Plant Materials Program website or contact the nearest Plant Materials Center or plant materials specialist