Gerald Almy: Create a warm season grass stand

Gerald Almy

One of the best ways to improve habitat in the Shenandoah Valley is to plant native warm season grasses. They grow six to eight feet tall, require little maintenance and offer great cover for song birds, game birds and deer.

You don’t need lots of land to benefit. Deer will use stands as small as a half acre, though a 2-3 acre plot is definitely better.

Warm season grasses once covered most of the country, basically anywhere forest didn’t grow. They dominated the land before European settlers arrived. Indians wisely used fire management to maintain healthy stands of the grasses.

When Europeans brought in the plow, the decline of native warm season grasses began. The introduction of fescue was the last nail in the figurative coffin for the grasses throughout most of the East. That’s unfortunate, because they are far superior for deer habitat to the cool season grasses that carpet most pasture fields today in the eastern half of the United States.

As the name implies, these grasses do most of their growing in summer. Late May or June is the perfect time to plant them, but early fall plantings will work as well.

The grasses grow readily on a wide variety of soils. No fertilizer is required, and they can take acidic pH readings as low as 5.2.

While their primary value is for cover, if you choose to sell the hay, deer will eat the fresh shoots that crop up after cutting. Warm season grasses can yield 4-7 tons of hay per acre.

Cuttings should be done as soon as quail nesting is finished in July. That way the grasses can regrow several feet before fall, providing cover in spite of being hayed.

If possible, don’t cut the grasses but instead let them grow to their full height of 6 to 8 feet. That way they’ll provide maximum cover.

That’s the purpose they shine at. Warm season grasses grow thick, but in clusters so deer can walk easily between the clumps. Established stands tower high enough to easily conceal a mature buck and his antlers.

Another plus of warm season grasses is that they are extremely drought resistant. Their roots can dig 12 feet deep. They can survive a month without rain easily.

Several species are useful: switchgrass, Eastern gamma, Indian, panicgrass and bluestem. Plant a mixture, in case some thrive better in your local soil.

Switchgrass is perhaps the easiest and most reliable. It’s particularly good for wet areas and can survive flooding up to 60 days. Indian grass is good for dry upland areas.

Management is simple: 1) do nothing, 2) hay them or 3) burn them. If you hay them, don’t cut lower than 6 to 10 inches and leave several areas uncut for deer cover.

If you choose burning, it should be done in spring every third year. Forestry departments will help for a modest fee. Burning thickens and improves the health of warm season stands. I’ve used it many times on our property near Maurertown, and the grasses always come back stronger, with lush green growth appearing within days of the burn.

Choose one of three options for using warm season grasses in your hunting.

1. Don’t hunt them at all and simply use as a sanctuary and magnet for old pressured bucks.

2. Hunt travel routes they use entering or leaving the fields to feed or chase does. Avoid hunting too close so they don’t associate danger with the grass stands.

3. Save them for a last ditch drive when the chips are down late in the season. Drive them just once, and then leave them alone. Chances are bucks you bump will come back, or others will move in.

Planting the Grasses:

• Choose a good location. Old fields are great level areas that you can easily clear. Remove rocks, sticks and debris.

• Spray with Roundup. Wait 7-10 days and spray again if green still shows.

• Mow down the existing grass or vegetation if it’s more than a few inches tall.

• At this point you have two options. One is to till the ground several times, broadcast the seed, and lightly disk it into the ground so it’s only covered a quarter inch. Then cultipack or drive over it with tractor tires to firm the bed.

• Option two: Locate a warm season grass drill. Many county or local conservation service agencies have these to rent or loan. Use the drill behind a tractor to plant directly into an herbicide-treated fescue field without tilling.

Set the drill for ¼ inch. Use about 8-10 pounds of pure live seed per acre. (You can also hire a local farmer to plant the field for you.)

• No fertilizer or lime is required. It may take a year or two to have a good stand develop. Be patient. When it does, you’ll have some superb wildlife habitat.

Assistance: Free advice and sometimes cost-sharing is available from agencies such as your local Natural Resources Conservation Service or Farm Service Agency.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.