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​Consider Grazing Kentucky Bluestem

Kentucky bluestem is a native warm-season grass (NWSG)​ that can be implemented into your current cool-season grass (CSG) grazing or haying system. Please see below and check back often for resources on why and how to graze native warm-season grasses.​

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Efficient Drought T​olerance

​Native bluestem grasses use water more efficiently than cool-season grasses, such as KY31 fescue. This means they can be more productive with less water through the summer months (June-August). Additionally, native bluestems establish extensive root systems, sometimes up to 12 feet, making water available farther below the surface than cool-season grasses.

Watertable showing the growth of NWSG root system reaching down deeper than the CSG grasses to the left  
Figure 1. Root systems of native bluestem (NWSG) extend much deeper below the surface than root systems of cool-season grasses (CSG)​​​​.​​

​​Avoid the Summer Slump!

Native bluestem will help you avoid the summer slump associated with cool-season grass forages. Native bluestem grasses are more efficient at photosynthesis and use less water to produce greater units of dry matter when compared to cool-season forage like KY31 fescue. Because native bluestems use a different form of photosynthesis, they grow most prolifically in the hottest and driest months in Kentucky (June-August). As temperatures rise and rainfall decreases, cool-season grasses become dormant, commonly referred to as the “summer slump”.

Field of grass with the left showing a row of fescue and the right showing bluestem

Image 1. Tall fescue on the left and switchgrass on the right. Photo taken in July
referred to as the “summer slump.” (Source: ​ UK College of Agriculture​)

Proven ​Quality Weight Gains

Native bluestems have been shown to be high-quality summer forage, producing higher rates of gain (1.5-2.2 pounds daily gain) than cool-season ​grasses (0.5-1.0 pounds daily gain). Summer grazing of native bluestems results in increased milk production for cows compared to cool-season grass grazing, leading to higher weaning weights for calves.

Graphic showing two cattle eating grass. The Cow in the front is eating only CSG grasses and the cow of the right is eating NWSG grasses

Figure 2. This data comes from studies of cattle performance (See Table 1 below.)

​​​Animals GrazedGrazing SystemForage SpeciesADGDays GrazedTotal Animal Days/acTotal Gain/ac
(600 lb)
Days GrazedBig Bluestem/Indiangrass Blend2.403077198
Eastern Gamagrass1.8630121226
Full SeasonBig Bluestem/Indiangrass Blend2.1271-115171370
Eastern Gamagrass1.0695244248
Bred Heifers
(1000 lb)
Full SeasonBig Bluestem/Indiangrass Blend1.9956263161
Eastern Gamagrass1.26112217274

Table 1. Summary of cattle performance while grazing native warm-season grasses at four UT AgResearch and Education Centers, 2010-2012.​​

Improved Summer Stockpile​

Incorporating native bluestems into your grazing system allows less dependence on cool-season grasses during the summer. Moving cattle from a cool-season pasture to a warm-season pasture gives your cool-season grass a break, allowing it to recover. Cool-season pastures that are given a break require less maintenance and reseeding, and the growth they put on through summer and into fall (while cattle are grazing native bluestems) can be stockpiled until later in the year. Grazing native bluestems reduce the reliance on cool-season grass, increasing the stockpile of hay cattle will need.

Bluestem Cattle Rotation in a Field 

Figure 3. The seasonal rotation of cattle in various fields containing different types of grasses.


Quality Tonnage in Haying Operations

Native bluestems have a higher yield per acre (2-6 tons) than cool-season grasses (2-3 tons/acre). Producing greater tons per acre means less acreage is required for hay production, and acreage can be freed up for other uses. Native bluestems generally require less fertilizer, reducing costs for hay production. Cool-season grasses are often matured by June when conditions are right for drying; however, native bluestems cut at that time are at their best for hay cutting. Second cuttings of native bluestems in July and August are still favorable and palatable for livestock.

Figure 4. Warm-season grasses on 1 acre can create up to 2-6 tons during peak hay-cutting season.

Benefits Native Wildlife

Not only are native bluestems quality forage and hay for livestock, but they also provide excellent cover for a variety of wildlife species. Native bluestems are considered “bunch grasses,” growing in clumps that create good cover for nests, compared to the more sod-like nature of cool-season grasses such as KY31 fescue. The timing of haying can have severe impacts on ground-nesting birds. Optimal haying for cool-season grasses falls from mid-April through late May, falling across the entire range of nesting dates for our grassland birds. On the other hand, native bluestem species have later optimal haying dates (mid-May through late June) depending on the species, meaning these grasses are cut with the highest quality after the nesting season has ended for many grassland songbirds.

Graphic showing bunches of wild grasses with wildlife inside

Figure 5. Warm-season grasses grow typically tall in bunches with deep roots.
​ This makes it easy for small animals to hide and travel in safety from predators.

Check Out These Professional Organizations for Assistance!​​


​Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) - Federal Service

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP):​ A program made available by the Farm Bill and implemented by NRCS meant to provide cost-share to people interested in improving conservation practices (benefitting soil, water, and wildlife) on their property.​

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP):​ A program made available by the Farm Bill and implemented by FSA meant to incentivize taking cropland out of production and planting permanent wildlife cover that will reduce erosion associated with crop production.

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Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) - State Service

Focus areas in Green and Madison Counties: Potential for assistance with resources needed to establish and incorporate native bluestems into their grazing or haying operations.


University of Kentucky Agriculture Extension (UK Ag Extention) - State Service

UK Ag Extension
offers additional technical guidance and soil testing to determine needs on your property when establishing native bluestems.​
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