At the bottom of a 6-foot soil pit in fertile Crete silt loam soil, Star Seed sales representative Dale Strickler could still see the roots of the gamagrass he seeded his pasture with in 2006. The pit was the first stop on a Fall Grazier's Tour at Strickler's farm just south of Courtland in north central Kansas. From 2000, when he bought the farm, up until 2006, it was in corn and soybeans, and the roots couldn't get past the two-foot layer of topsoil.
Planting gamagrass allowed Strickler to break through the clay layer, which normally limits oxygen. He notes the bottom of the pit has a reddish color, meaning oxygen is now available. This is thanks to gamagrass's deep, extensive root system, which contains aerenchyma tissue. "It's the inner part of the root, it has big cavities in it that enable air to move down the center of the root to supply oxygen to those roots," Strickler says. "It's a real simple mechanism, kind of like a snorkel."
Grazing annuals and perennials
Strickler, who has been rotational grazing since 2007, grazes 136 acres of perennials, like gamagrass, in addition to annuals. This gives him the benefits of both. "Perennials are better for improving the soil than annuals," he notes. "The problem with an entire perennial system is that all perennials produce twice as much in the first half of the season as the second half of the season. That's why I still have annual pastures. They are very valuable for balancing out that feed supply."
In these pastures, he rotates paddocks daily, giving longer rest periods as the season goes on. Initially, he grazed the grass all the way down. Now, he uses the "take half, leave half" motto many rotational grazers live by. "You can graze 50%, the top half grows back, and the bottom half stays there," he says. "It never goes to waste. You can always graze it later." By giving the ground more rest, and grazing both perennials and annuals, he can graze most of the year. "I went from about 180 or 200 grazing days per acre up to 300."
•After calving in April, Strickler begins the grazing season on cereal rye and ryegrass, which show the most growth this early on.
•In May, he moves to pasture made up of alfalfa and low-alkaloid reed canarygrass. Canarygrass is a cool season grass, but it also has the aerenchyma tissue that gamagrass does. Because it is low-alkaloid, it is palatable for cattle.
•Cattle are rotated in gamagrass pastures in June. These pastures include legumes like alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil with red clover mixed in, providing dietary diversity for cattle, while fixing nitrogen for the gamagrass.
•In July and Angus, cattle are rotated in annual pastures made up of BMR brachytic dwarf sorghum-sudan, alternated with cowpeas and Tropic Sun, a kind of cattle-edible sunn hemp developed by USDA. Sorghum-sudan has a high energy content and a lot of growth, while the two legumes balance out the diet with protein.
•In September, he moves to stockpiled sorghum and sunn hemp.
•In October, he rotates back to canarygrass and alfalfa.
•November is when his perennial supplies usually run short, requiring him to graze oats and tillage radishes planted on leased acres.
•In December, he rotates between annual pastures of cereal rye and ryegrass, and sweet clover, pasja hybrid brassica, and tillage radish, which were planted in the fall.
•In January and February, the calves are weaned, and dry cows are moved to dormant gamagrass and stockpiled BMR forage sorghum.
•After the sorghum is grazed in March, he feeds hay until calving starts in April.
More information on Strickler's farm can be found in the December Kansas Farmer.
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