Learning to Work With Indian Grass

Our ranching operation has not long had the privilege of observing the growth and grazing capabilities of Indian Grass. Basically, the first Indian Grass was found on lands that we operate three years ago. Today as the population of Indian Grass increases, we can observe how the cattle graze this highly preferred grazing plant. If the grazing program is structured so that a limited time of grazing is allowed, then followed by an extended rest period, the below picture depicts what we expect to see. About ½ to 2/3’s of the leaf surface of the plant is quickly consumed by the grazing animal. With the very low percentage of plant diversity this ice cream-decreaser is vulnerable to over grazing, if the cattle are left in the pasture for an extended time period, they will return to the first grazed plant and further graze it, ultimately to the ground. (Of interesting note, a few of the ‘bull’ IG plants that have become large well-established plants, approaching 3’ to 4’ in diameter are often avoided by cattle. (Moribund Indian Grass, the result of low-density grazing? Not prepared to make judgement on that one but may be like Sideoats Grama that seems to utilize the ‘bull’ plants to produce seed under more severe grazing conditions.) The cattle prefer to graze the younger, smaller, possibly more ‘tasty’ IG plants. If this plant is not well established, the repetitive grazing will ultimately kill it. Even well-established IG will be ultimately be killed as a result of not allowing recovery from grazing.


How long does this ‘death walk’ of continuous grazing take? I have observed young IG plants killed the first or second year of life, due to continuous grazing. When we observe what history tells: In 1898 HL Bentley wrote of the grasslands in West Central Texas. Observing the huge numbers of cattle that were grazing the land from 1876 to the date of his writing 1898. (Up to 300 head per section or 2.5 acres per animal unit) He provided some detailed descriptions of various grasses for identification purposes; Indian Grass was not mentioned in those descriptions. Was it already missing from the rangelands of the area? In his writing he interviewed some local ranchmen. Those cowmen were already (1898) concerned that the rangeland would never recover from the first 20 years of cattlemen’s grazing at those- what is now considered- ridiculously high rates.


With the current knowledge of grazing and what proper management can achieve, just how far might we go in recovering those ‘days of yore’ when some say the ‘Big Four’ were the dominant grasses.  As the population of Indian Grass, Big Blue and other deep rooted, drought resistant grass increases, I expect the graze-rest-time ratios of an operation will need to be adjusted. Not knowing what those ratios ultimately might be, I look forward to the challenge of finding our operation in that new management area. (Of course, I am probably ‘dreaming’ at this point, however with hard work and diligence dreams often come true.) It appears Indian grass is a slow starter, as seedlings generally take up to three years to express themselves to the point of being recognized on the rangeland. PATIENCE is in order.


The picture depicts Indian Grass that was grazed somewhat severely in the fall of 2018, the picture was taken April 22 of 2019. Note the new growth of the Indian Grass compared to the early spring growth of other warm season grasses. Talk about a ‘jump start’ on spring grazing capability, nothing short of phenomenal. Consider what the range looked like when Indian, Big Blue, Little Blue and Switch Grass were in good health and dominated the landscape. Three hundred head to the section? Probably not, but just think what it might have been under a properly applied controlled grazing program.IMG_0237

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