Benefits of Switchgrass for Hay and Forage

Benefits of Switchgrass for Hay and Forage

April 18, 2008 

Switchgrass has been in the news lately as scientists research various options for biofuels, but amid the headlines don't overlook the benefits of this native warm-season grass for good pasture and hay.

Switchgrass pasture needs careful management and must be grazed before seedstalks develop. Switchgrass quality is high and its palatability is good when young. Yearlings often gain 1.5 to 2 lbs per day during this time. After seedheads emerge, though, nutrient levels decline rapidly and animals refuse to eat much of it.

Grazing usually must begin in June, when switchgrass is about a foot tall. It works best to stock it heavily so plants are grazed down to about 6 inches of stubble within three weeks. Then allow it to regrow around six weeks and graze regrowth about mid-August, being sure to leave at least six inches of stubble going into winter.

If cut for hay, switchgrass is very palatable and nutritious before or just as seedheads appear. It makes excellent hay for weaning calves or growing young stock. But as with grazing, as plants become mature and stemmy, switchgrass hay becomes less desirable and may need to be ground in order to be used effectively. If cattle can't graze it before seedheads appear, it should be cut for hay rather than used as a poor quality forage.

Do not cut regrowth a second time for hay. This will weaken stands. If regrowth is plentiful after an early hay harvest, graze regrowth lightly but leave six or more inches of stubble for winter.

Switchgrass isn't likely to be used for energy production for several years, but it can make an excellent forage now if managed correctly.

Bruce Anderson
Extension Forage Specialist