The poster child for marginal ground

CEW-MR-3-Switchgrass1015by Sally Colby

Most farmers in the northeast aren’t doing much baling in April, but because of the early winter and persistent snow cover in the winter of 2013/2014, it was impossible for Andy Bater to harvest his crop until just a month ago. Bater’s crop is switchgrass, a native, warm-season grass that is gaining recognition as a crop suitable for marginal ground. Switchgrass can be used as a ground cover for erodible soil, as cover for game or for mine reclamation, and is often harvested green for hay or after frost kill for livestock bedding. There is also considerable research into using switchgrass as a renewable energy source, or biofuel.

Bater refers his 20-acre field of switchgrass as ‘the poster child for marginal ground’ because the land is barely suitable for crop production. The slope is around 20 to 25 degrees, with some sections of the field close to 30 degrees. The field was originally cleared in the early 1900s, and over the years has been used for hay and small grains. “Then it was deemed unworkable, and when we bought it, it had been fallow for a while,” said Bater. “There were small trees starting to grow up in it.”

With the help of his wife Chris, Bater cleared the locust saplings, mulitflora rose, autumn olive and weedy grasses, then prepared the ground for planting. The sod was treated with glyphosate in early May 2008, followed by 2,4D and dicamba to finish the burn down, and some mowing to clean up the edges of the field. In early June of 2008, the field was seeded with a ‘wildflower’ no-till drill designed to handle the tiny switchgrass seeds.

“Switchgrass is hard to establish and requires good seed to soil contact,” said Bater, adding that most first-year switchgrass plantings look like total failures. “The first year it isn’t very vigorous.” However, once it’s established, switchgrass grows quite vigorously during the summer when cool-season grasses slow down. In late 2008, Bater found some thriving panicles, and was able to cut and bale the second year. As is the case in nearly any grass field, some weeds persist, but most weeds are shaded out by the switchgrass and persistent weeds are spot-treated as necessary.

Because of the extreme slope of the field, Bater has employed several safety measures to minimize the risk of working on a steep slope. The wheels on his tractor are set as wide as possible, and the rear wheels are loaded with beet juice for extra weight. Chains on the tires add stability, but Bater still has some issues with disrupting the sod with wheel spin on uphill runs. Inside the cab, a meter reads the slope so that the operator can determine when he’s in the danger zone. “Trying to operate on the hillside is challenging,” said Bater, who uses a track laying tractor around the farm for site and utility work. “I’ve explored using dual wheels, but they’d run over the windrows.”

When the switchgrass is ready to harvest, Bater uses a disk mower on a 3-point hitch that is offset similar to a sickle bar. “It’ll cut through saplings,” said Bater as he described the advantages of the disk mower. “I have to be careful with the orientation so I don’t end up with the mower hanging off the wrong side.” The crop is raked with a rotary hay rake, minus the shield, because Bater found that the inevitable rocks have sufficient energy to fly right past the windrow. Bater rakes two or three windrows together for harvest to minimize the number of times he has to go up and down the hill.

The grass is brown and dormant when it’s mowed, so it doesn’t require curing. Bater has used both a round baler and a small square baler, and prefers the latter. “I can’t drive fast enough to make the bale fast enough to prevent shattering in the round baler,” he said. “Round bales are also problem because they roll down the steep hills. What works best are 35 to 40 pound small square bales. It’s been a challenge because I can make heavier bales, and some customers would like to purchase larger bales. But organic gardeners and garden centers don’t want large bales because they’re difficult for some customers to handle.”

Bales exit the baler lengthwise and flip around before landing on the ground. This situates bales so they don’t roll downhill. “I bale up and down the hill in first low because that’s about all the tractor will do on the hill,” said Bater. “It’s easier to bale downhill — going uphill, I have to fight gravity.” After baling, Bater picks up the bales (by hand, because he hasn’t found a good, safe mechanized way to pick them up) and stacks them on pallets in the field prior to moving them to storage. Bater stores the baled switchgrass under tarps, and has been selling it both privately and at auction for livestock bedding and mulch.

Although Bater typically bales in November or December, this past winter’s early and persistent snow prevented harvest at that time. The ground was finally suitable for cutting and baling just this past April. “We didn’t have a killing frost until late in the season,” said Bater. “I don’t start cutting and baling until that occurs because we want to bale when it’s dry. The later it’s baled, the more likely the seed has come off the panicle — cutting, raking and baling knocks the seeds off.”

Portions of windrows that remain after baling will slow down spring growth, but the switchgrass will eventually catch up and mature on time. Although Bater has done several soil tests, no amendments have been made because custom applicators are reluctant to operate equipment on the extreme slope.

The April harvest yielded 2,000 bales from the 15-acre portion of the field that was mowed and baled. Now in year six of the planting, Bater is considering options for the future: more aggressive weed control, overseeding, or perhaps grazing livestock?

For more information on switchgrass, visit www.extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/energy/field-crops/resources/additional-info/switchgrass  or www.carolinagrown.org.

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