Charlie Drumheller tests strip grazing on switchgrass

CM-MR-2-Charlie Drumheller 2by Karl H. Kazaks
SWOOPE, VA — With the abundance of pasture forage available this year thanks to mild temperatures and abundant rainfall, the availability of summer grazing resources may not be on the top of every grazier’s mind.
But warm season grasses can be a good investment even when your fescue and other cool-season stands are thriving (not to mention insurance against hot droughty summers). Not only can warm season grasses be harvested for hay at times when hay equipment isn’t in as high demand, but there are other ways to utilize warm season grasses — such as for energy and bedding.
That was the calculation Charlie Drumheller made when he decided to plant 13 acres of switchgrass (with some big bluestem and little bluestem) in 2007 and then a few years later to plant another 20 acres of the warm season species.

Drumheller discovered switchgrass when he was researching what grass to plant in a field that he decided to fence off and turn into a hay field.

“It’s one of the flattest parts of the farm,” he said. “I was in the process of trying to go to rotational grazing and got interested in warm season grasses.”

Drumheller chose switchgrass for four reasons. First, you can make hay out of it, and do so later in the year when there isn’t as much demand for hay equipment. That’s especially important for Drumheller, who hires out his hay work. It allows him to get the hay up at the optimal time.

Second, Drumheller chose switchgrass because it is a good grazing grass for the mid-summer slump. But he’s only grazed his switchgrass twice: this year, when he was testing strip grazing, and in 2008, when a hot, droughty summer led him to look for summer grazing.

That year he would let his cattle in for what he calls a “two-hour happy hour.”
“By the second or third day,” he recalled, “when you came to the gate, boy did you have to get out of the way or they would run flat over top of you,” to get at the switchgrass.

The third reason Drumheller chose switchgrass is because of the multiple ways it can be used as a harvested crop. Not only can it be fed as hay, but it has the potential to be a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production, and has been tested as an energy source in coal-burning furnaces. Drumheller has even sold switchgrass hay as bedding for poultry houses.

“We had baled it in February,” he said, “so it was really dry. It made really good bedding. It was absorbent, local, and reasonably priced.”

Finally, Drumheller liked that switchgrass is good wildlife habitat, though he emphasized that the wildlife advantages are just gravy, not a dispositive reason for choosing the grass.

Drumheller had great success establishing his first stand of switchgrass (his second didn’t take quite as well), and he figures it’s likely because of two reasons.

First, he sprayed the field before planting. He sprayed in the previous fall, early in the spring, late in the spring, and then the same day that he planted the grass (because there was green in the field on planting day).
The multiple sprayings, he reasoned, “eliminated the competition.”

What’s more, after planting, there was no rain for about a month, which Drumheller figured further dampened competition.

Because the field is fairly flat, Drumheller had dedicated it as hay ground — taking a summer and a winter crop (and making sure not to cut too low, leaving six to seven inches). Aside from that 2008 drought, he never grazed it until this year.

This year, he decided to practice strip grazing on some cool-season grass pastures, using long narrow fields suitable for easy cross-fencing. He measured how much he was able to get out of two fields with stockpiled fescue this winter.

In one field, grazed conventionally, he had 34 animal units last 24 days on 33.5 acres, which calculates to just over 24 animal unit days per acre. The other field, which he strip grazed, is 4.7 acres and was able to handle 11 animal units for 60 days, which comes to 140 animal unit days per acre.

That convinced Drumheller to try strip grazing his older switchgrass field this year. It too is long and narrow, so it was easy to cross fence.

He was concerned, though, that a simple cross fence would not be enough to keep cattle from moving across it, since switchgrass grows so high. He thought he might have to bushhog where he put the cross fence, but was advised that running a four-wheeler through the tall grass would provide enough change in color and texture that it would, together with the cross fence, keep the animals penned. That was enough.

Switchgrass does have to be burned every three years. Drumheller burns his stands in April. A few weeks before the burn, he will bushhog the perimeter to provide a fire break. After the burn, the stand comes back quicker, possibly because of the reflective heat from the black surface of the soil, said Drumheller.

“One of the good things about switchgrass is it pretty much shades out competition once it gets established,” Drumheller said.

Drumheller is starting a registered red Angus herd with his son Bobby, who is a soil conservationist at the NRCS’s Verona office. He likes the breed because they yield and marble well and have good disposition. Drumheller also custom grazes cattle.

Drumheller grew up on the family farm here before going to VPI, where he earned an animal science degree. After he left Blacksburg he worked as a food inspector in the Army. From the Army, he went to work for Kroger and became in charge of its meat quality assurance program.

He came back to the farm some 20 years ago, but continues to work as a consultant in the meat industry. But he keeps moving things forward on the farm.

His next goal? “I want to move to year-round grazing,” he said.

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