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Mr. Smarty Plants - Native grasses for horse and cattle forage in Hockley, Texas

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Sunday - April 03, 2011

From: Hockley, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Grasses or Grass-like
Title: Native grasses for horse and cattle forage in Hockley, Texas
Answered by: Stephen Scace

QUESTION:

I would like to know the best type of native hay to seed on 10 acres in Hockley, Tx. The hay will be used for forage for horses and a milk cow. We would like to go completely organic and not use any artificial fertilizers. Thank you for your time.

ANSWER:

Ah, the short question. Mr. Smarty Pants knows that it is the short, yet specific question that is the trickiest to answer meaningfully, for it hides a bounty of implied but unstated constraints and mysteries. Nevetheless, there usually is a short answer that may suffice and a longer answer that may contain the seeds of success.

First–because Mr. Smarty Pants is, above all, compassionate towards his busy readers–the short answer: the best native forage crop in Texas is Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem). It is already the most popular, growing in over 100 million acres of pasture and hayfield. It is hardy, drought-tolerant, widespread and adaptable, and it is tasty and nutritious at all stages of growth. It is even pretty, whether its stems are young and deep blue-green or the mature dusky red that recreates the summer sunset on the ground. And, critically, seed is commercially available. So we're done.

Or are we?   

Mr. Smarty Pants deconstructs the original query into these parts:
What native grasses
– will grow in Hockley, Texas?
– will provide good forage for a horse and a cow?
– will sustain themselves without artificial fertilizers?

The six thousand queries Mr. Smarty Plants has already answered have taught him to avoid the simple geographical traps. For example, Hockley, Texas and Hockley County, Texas, are separated by over 500 miles of highway and a half-dozen ecological zones. The present subject, Hockley, Texas, lies just northwest of Houston on the edge of the coastal plains. According to the EPA, Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem), Sorghastrum nutans (Indiangrass), Paspalum plicatulum (Brownseed paspale), Muhlenbergia capillaris (Gulf muhly), Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass) and probably Andropogon gerardii (Big bluestem) were the dominant grassland species before the arrival of Europeans. Bunchgrass species from the short grass prairies to the west would have increased after the periodic rampages of bison.

Mr. Smarty Plants' point with all this history and geography is manifold. Despite their wildly different climates and soils, many of the same native species thrive in both Hockleys. The difference is in their proportions in the native prairie mix. Native species occur not alone as in a cultivated field but within a diverse mix of other species–including forbs or wildflowers. This diversity helps the native pasture survive as seasons, weather, and grazing patterns change.

Speaking of grazing, the term "forage" applies to both grazing and cutting, while "hay" implies cutting, drying and storing for later use. The intended use affects your choice of species in the native mix. Species that grow faster and taller will serve hay cutting better than others. You would not want forbs making their way into your bales of hay, as animals seem to be a little less discriminating than when they graze.

Speaking of animals, Mr. Smarty Plants will risk stating the obvious and point out that a horse is not a cow. Less obvious, perhaps, is that cows and horses have different tastes and digestive capabilities. Horses are pretty picky, and are likely to graze every bit of the Little bluestem before they bother with the less palatable species. Cows are more likely to eat what they come to next, and indeed, relish the coarser tall grasses. Mr. Smarty Plants is quite aware that he is generalizing the behavior of a species to individual animals; certainly, your personal knowledge of your own critters matters more. What matters most is that a diversity of species will help sustain your pasture by providing your animals some choices. The species they prefer will eventually wane as the ones they shun thrive. Those less-tasty ones will hold the soil until you rest or reseed your pasture so it can regain its balance.

So what does this long answer really contribute to the solution? Mostly this: most native pastures in Texas were found, not created. There is no cookbook, no recipe. Native grass seed mixes are commercially available, and would likely serve you well, but for now you will be something of a pioneer. Mr. Smarty Plants salutes and encourages you in this endeavor, and nothing could please him more than a happy horse and contented cow on your native pasture.

[You can find seed companies in your area by searching our National Suppliers Directory.  In that directory one of our associates, Native American Seed, has various native seed mixes especially developed for the different regions of Texas.]

 

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