Native grasses provide animals with both food and shelter, which are essential to survival
When it comes to grass, you most likely think of the type of grass you have in your yard, which is short, green and easily maintained with a lawnmower. But when it comes to wildlife, this type of grass, and even the grass that is provided to farm animals for grazing, offers no benefits.
Andrew Baril, regional extension agent, says native warm season grasses (NWSG) are necessary for much of Alabama’s wildlife to truly thrive and prosper, but most of the native Alabama grasses have been replaced by grass from Europe, South America and Africa.
“When pioneers came to this country, they overgrazed the native grasses,” Baril said. “Once much of the grass was gone, they decided to replace it with grass from other countries. Grasses that you’re familiar with, such as bermudagrass and tall fescue, are not native to Alabama and have no value for wildlife.”
“In fact, the shelter these grasses provide is probably most important.”
Some of Alabama’s NWSGs include eastern gamagrass, broom sedge, switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem and Indiangrass.
These native grasses provide animals with both food and shelter, which are essential to survival. In fact, the shelter these grasses provide is probably most important.
“Native warm season grasses provide structure throughout the year,” Baril said. “You not only have the plant, but you have the height of the plant, which hides turkeys, quail, deer and their young all year long. When other grasses are browning and dying during the dry summer months, these drought-resistant grasses continue to grow. In fact, switchgrass can grow up to 12-feet tall, with roots that grow down into the ground 12-feet deep, making it extremely drought tolerant. Wild animals aren’t the only creatures that can benefit from native grasses. When the pastures brown out in the summer, cows and other farm animals could browse on the native grasses if they were available.”
Another benefit of native grasses is the ability of young to not only seek shelter in the grasses but easily walk through them. Native grasses are bunch grasses, which mean they’re bunched up at the ground level with dirt in between making it easy for small birds, like quail, to walk on the ground between the grass bunches. The non-native carpet-type grasses don’t allow for open dirt.
“Imagine being a 2-inch-tall baby quail and trying to run from a predator in that type of grass,” Baril said. “It’s impossible. Carpet grass slows their movement and makes them more susceptible to predation. If the quail is able to walk on open dirt from grass bunch to grass bunch, it will more likely survive the first couple of weeks of its life until it can escape predators by flying. Lack of open ground is one of the main problems Alabama has concerning its quail population.”
Another benefit for tall native grasses is the bugs that make their homes there. Baby ground birds, like turkeys and quail, survive off of a 100 % bug diet. These tall grasses have spiders, grasshoppers, etc. that the birds can feed on as they walk through the grass. Carpet grasses don’t provide an ample supply of easy-to-catch bugs.
Deer utilize native grass for both food and shelter as well. When deer browse on sweetgum or hickory leaves, they receive little protein. On the other hand, native grasses provide deer with much more protein, which helps grow their antler and body size. Adult deer love to bed in native grass, not only because it hides them from predators, but because it provides shade in hot weather. The grass provides the perfect hiding place for fawns as well.
“When it comes to land management, I recommend to landowners that they try to ensure that 30 to 40 % of the forest land is covered in native grasses,” Baril said. “In fact, you don’t have to plant crops in your game patches every year. Instead, you need to have plots with just native grasses.”
Since much of the native grass was wiped out many years ago, you’ll need to buy grass seeds to plant in the spring. You’ll need to prepare the soil and then mix the seed with some sand and use a broadcast spreader to distribute it. You can also drill the seed into the ground.
The grass takes at least two years to come up. The first year, the plants are establishing their roots and are barely showing above ground. Your field will look as if it is covered in weeds. But, after the second or third year, the grass will fully grow.
The best management technique is to let the grass grow during the growing season and let it stand all winter long. Then, just before growing season, burn it. It will come back quickly. Grass that you allow to stand throughout winter will continue to provide shelter for wildlife. If you have 10 to 15 openings, burn half one year and half the other year. The quail and turkey will nest in the old, dead grass in the plots you’ve left standing.
When it comes to land management, don’t underestimate the power of native warm season grasses, as they are essential for a healthy and prosperous wildlife population.