What eats big bluestem grass?


Big Bluestem Seeds – Native Prairie Grass or Ornamental Grass Seed

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) – Big Bluestem grass seeds can produce a versatile and attractive grass. It is a native grass and is a warm season perennial grass which has an attractive reddish-copper color in fall and can help create a beautiful landscape. In fact, some use it specifically as an ornamental grass. It blooms from June through September. In late summer, purplish flower spikes form. Big Bluestem is the most prevalent and widely distributed of all prairie grasses which can grow 4 to 7 feet tall.

Big Bluestem has tall and slender stems that are blue-green in the summer. The hairy blades, which can get to be 12 inches long and 1/2 inch wide, will get a red tinge on the leaves as they get older, and turn reddish copper in the fall. Big Bluestem grasses are excellent native grasses for landscaping and can be grown in pots or in the flower beds. It is a very attractive grass which works well as an accent plant or in mass plantings.

Big Bluestem Seeding Rate

8 – 12 PLS lbs per acre or 1/2 – 1 PLS lb per 1000 square feet for ornamental plantings.

PLS pounds – Pure Live Seed, or PLS, is the percentage of viable seed in a given lot. It is calculated by multiplying the purity percentage by the total germination percentage. For example, 95% purity multiplied by 85% total germination equals a 80.75% PLS. This means that out of every bulk pound of that bag of native grass seed that you plant, 80.75% of it is actually seed of that tagged variety and has the potential to germinate. Weights listed are bulk pounds.


Type: Perennial
Mature Height: 4 – 7 feet
Soil Type: Well drained
Mature Spread: 2 – 3 feet
Flower Color: Purplish
Mature Form: Upright – Clump
Foliage Color: Silvery-blue
Growth Rate: Moderate
Fall Color: Reddish copper
Sun Exposure: Full sun
Moisture Requirements: Adaptable to dry
Zones: 4 – 9

Uses of Big Bluestem

Conservation: Andropogon gerardii Big Bluestem is the dominant native grass species of the Midwestern tallgrass prairie. It is mixed with other native prairie grasses for prairie restoration and highway re-vegetation or mixed with wildflowers. If mixing with wildflowers, it should be mixed with tall wildflower species; otherwise, the Big Blustem will dominate. While it does best in moist soils, it can be used for mine reclamation, logging road restoration and other restoration areas that have sandy or droughty conditions.

Erosion Control: Big Bluestem is planted to stabilize soil. Rhizomes (underground roots that form runners) are typically 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface, while the main roots can extend downward to 10 feet. Big Bluestem is also planted to provide aboveground protection against wind erosion.

Forage: Big Bluestem is a high quality forage species for all classes of livestock. Crude protein content of 16-18% is maintained from May through August but drops below 6% in September and October. It is often cultivated as a pasture grass and for hay-making. Big Bluestem can withstand substantial grazing. However, if this native grass is continually grazed closer than 6 to 8 inches, it will be out competed by other grass species. It is highly palatable to livestock during spring and summer and becomes coarse and less palatable during the fall and winter. Hay should be mowed in early to mid-summer to maintain high nutrition quality.

Landscaping: Big Bluestem is used in wildflower meadows and prairie plantings. It is also effective as a rear border or accent in native plant gardens. Big Bluestem ornamental grass is very showy and appealing.

Wildlife: Big Bluestem provides shelter for nesting birds and insects. Songbirds and prairie chickens consume the seeds while white-tailed deer and bison graze vegetative parts.

Distribution & Habitat of Big Blustem

Big Bluestem is native to the United States. It occurs in southern Canada, from Maine to Montana, south to Florida and New Mexico and into Mexico. It is found in open woods, prairies, meadows, along riverbanks, and roadsides. It is especially abundant in lowland prairies, overflow sites, and sandy areas.

Adaptation of Big Blustem

The USDA hardiness zones for Big Bluestem are 4 to 9. It is best adapted to moist, sandy or clay loams but also occurs in dry or shallow soils. It does well in full sun or partial shade. Prairie conditions, like low nutrient and moisture content, have conditioned many native grasses for use in well-drained soil with low fertility. It is not tolerant of heavy clays, extremely wet bottomlands, deep sands, high salinity, or high lime. Big Bluestem is generally shorter in the northern portion of its range, and taller in the southern portion of its range. It is a rhizomatous, sod-forming grass in the tall grass prairie and has a bunch grass appearance in more arid regions.

How To Grow Big Bluestem Grass

Fill germination trays and pots with moist soil or broadcast the native grass seed over the desired planting area. Sow the native grass seeds by hand, covering with a thin layer of soil. Keep soil evenly moist during germination and do not use fertilizer. The ornamental grass seeds can be sown directly outside from late winter to late spring. Emergence will occur in in 3 to 4 weeks depending on adequate moisture and soil temperatures. Plants will be ready for harvest in mid-summer to late fall. First-season growth is often slow. Rhizomatic regeneration in following years increases the growth rate.

Big Bluestem

Big Bluestem

Synonymous with the Midwest’s vast prairies of old, the grass big bluestem looks good in modern landscapes, too. Call on this grass to add year-round color and texture to dry, lean soil because it changes color seasonally and bears interesting forked seed heads. Plus, its tall stature makes it a great plant for creating a living screen or masking a view. Big bluestem beckons birds, insects, and other wildlife that mine it for food and shelter.

genus name
  • Andropogon gerardii
  • Sun
plant type
  • Perennial
  • 3 to 8 feet
  • 2 to 3 feet
flower color
  • Pink
foliage color
  • Blue/Green
season features
  • Fall Bloom,
  • Summer Bloom,
  • Colorful Fall Foliage,
  • Winter Interest
problem solvers
  • Deer Resistant,
  • Drought Tolerant,
  • Slope/Erosion Control
special features
  • Low Maintenance,
  • Attracts Birds
  • 4,
  • 5,
  • 6,
  • 7,
  • 8,
  • 9
  • Division,
  • Seed

What to Plant With Big Bluestem

Pair big bluestem with other prairie favorites for an easy-care planting that erupts with color and wildlife-interest year-round. Great companions include purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, Joe Pye weed, and false sunflower. Big bluestem is also striking when planted alongside other ornamental grasses that thrive in prairie environments: little bluestem, switchgrass, prairie dropseed, tufted hairgrass, and sideoats grama.

Growing Big Bluestem

Big bluestem grows best in full sun and well-drained soil. Like many prairie grasses, it thrives in lean, dry soil and once established tolerates long periods of dry conditions. It tends to topple over in moist soil and/or soil that is rich in nutrients. Big bluestem self-seeds freely in optimal growing conditions.

Plant big bluestem in spring and water it well. Continue to water every couple of weeks during the first growing season to encourage a deep root system. Flowering stems, which are topped with seed heads that resemble turkey feet (hence the common name turkeyfoot), emerge in late summer to bring the height closer to 8 feet.

Big bluestem is a warm-season grass, which means that most of its growth occurs during the warm summer months. This grass displays attractive fall color and stands tall through winter with its seed heads moving in the wind. Cut it back in early spring before new growth begins. Don’t get discouraged if other plants put up new shoots and big bluestem is still dormant. It will send out new growth as soon as the temperatures moderate.

New Types of Big Bluestem

Plant breeders are developing some new cultivars that take on brilliant fall color and some that mature to a smaller size than is typical for the species. Look for these unique grasses at garden centers that specialize in North American native plants.

More Varieties of Big Bluestem

Broomsedge bluestem

Andropogon glomeratus is an easy-to-grow species from North America that features fantastic copper fall color. It tolerates a range of soil types, from wet to dry. This fast spreader can be too aggressive for small gardens. Broomsedge bluestem grows 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Zones 5-8

Bushy bluestem

Andropogon glomeratus is a North American native grass with blue-green foliage in summer that turns coppery-red in autumn. It’s prized for its fluffy flower stalks that crown the plant in fall. It grows 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Zones 4-10

Plant Big Bluestem With:

Purple coneflower is so easy to grow and attractive and draws so many birds and butterflies that you simply must grow it, if you have the room. Valued for its large sturdy daisylike flowers with dropping petals, this prairie native will spread easily in good soil and full sun. It is bothered by few pests or diseases. It’s a great cut flower — bring in armloads of it to brighten the house. And birds and butterflies love it. Allow it to spread so that you have at least a small stand of it. Let the flowers go to seed and the goldfinches will love you, coming to feast on the seeds daily. Butterflies and helpful bees also love purple coneflower.It used to be that rosy purple or white were the only choices in flower color. Recent hybrids have introduced yellow, orange, burgundy, cream, and shades in between.

Joe Pye weed is a showstopper of a prairie native, producing huge, puffy flower heads in late summer. It prefers moist soils, but with its extensive root system, it also tolerates drought well. It is a large plant, growing 4 to 6 feet tall.Closely related, hardy ageratum is a spreading plant that grows to only 2 feet tall. Another relative, white snakeroot, reaches 4 to 5 feet tall. All are great for naturalistic or cottage plantings and for attracting butterflies.

False sunflowers are easily confused with perennial sunflowers, but they have the advantage of being more compact (less floppy) and blooming earlier so you can have more sunflowerlike flowers longer. Their brilliant yellow single, semidouble, or fully double flowers bloom over many weeks. They make excellent cut flowers. Tall varieties may require staking. Divide the plants every couple of years to ensure vigor.

Big bluestem

Size and Form

Big bluestem is a tall, upright grass. Before flowering, it may grow 4 to 6 feet tall. Once in flower, it may be as tall as 8 feet .

Plant Care

Big bluestem tolerates heat and drought well.
While it is considered a clumping grass, it does actually spread slowly by rhizomes. It will also spread by seed.
This is a warm season grass, so it’s most active growth occurs in summer. It will remain standing in winter and can act as winter interest.
Since this grass remains attractive through winter, it should not be cut back until early spring, before new growth begins. At that time, it can be cut down to the ground.

Disease, pests, and problems

No serious problems.

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 5

Native to Illinois and the Chicago region. This was the dominant grass of the prairies that once covered Illinois.

Leaf description

The alternate leaves are up to 2 feet long and 1/2 inch wide. In summer, the leaves are green, sometimes with a bluish cast or blue color at the nodes. In autumn, the leaves take on tones of bronze and red. During winter, the leaves are tan.

Flower description

Flowering occurs in late summer (usually August and September). The tiny, green to reddish flowers occur on three-branched structures (the reason for the common name, turkey foot). The branches of the flower cluster often have a purplish cast. The flowers are wind pollinated.

Fruit description

The small fruit (caryopsis or grains) form along the three branched structures that held the flowers.

Cultivars and their differences

“These plants are cultivars of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits.”

Indian Warrior (Andropogon gerardii ‘Indian Warrior’): This cultivar takes on red and purple tones starting in mid-summer and extending into fall.

Red October (Andropogon gerardii ‘Red October’): Another cultivar with good color. Summer leaves are green tipped with red. In autumn, the color changes to burgundy. After several frosts, the color becomes more scarlet.

Windwalker® (Andropogon gerardii ‘PWIN01S’): Leaves are gray-blue in summer and maroon in fall.

Big Bluestem Grass Information And Tips

Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) is a warm season grass suited for arid climates. The grass was once widespread across North America prairies. Planting big bluestem has become an important part of erosion control on land that has been over grazed or farmed. It then provides shelter and forage for wildlife. Growing big bluestem grass in the home landscape can accent a native flower garden or border the open property line.

Big Bluestem Grass Information

Big Bluestem grass is a solid stemmed grass, which sets it apart from most grass species that have hollow stems. It is a perennial grass that spreads by rhizomes and seed. The stems are flat and have a bluish coloring at the base of the plant. In July through October the grass sports 3 to 6 foot tall inflorescences that become three part seed heads that resemble turkey feet. The clumping grass assumes a reddish hue in fall when it dies back until it resumes growth in spring.

This perennial grass is found in dry soil in prairies and arid zone woods across the southern United States. Bluestem grass is also part of the fertile tall grass prairies of the midwest. Big bluestem grass is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9. Sandy to loamy soils are ideal for growing big bluestem grass. The plant is adaptable to either full sun or partial shade.

Growing Big Bluestem Grass

Big bluestem has demonstrated that it may be invasive in some zones so it is a good idea to check with your county extension office before seeding the plant. The seed has improved germination if you stratify it for at least a month and it can then be planted inside or directly sown. Planting big bluestem grass may be done in late winter to early spring or when soils are workable.

Sow big bluestem seed at ¼ to ½ inch deep. The sprouts will emerge in about four weeks if you irrigate consistently. Alternately, plant seed in plug trays in mid winter for transplant into the garden in spring.

Big bluestem grass seed can be purchased or harvested right from the seed heads. Collect seed heads when they are dry in September to October. Place the seed heads in paper bags in a warm area to dry for two to four weeks. Big bluestem grass should be planted after winter’s worst has passed so you will need to store the seed. Store it for up to seven months in a jar with a tightly sealed lid in a dark room.

Big Bluestem Cultivars

There are improved strains developed for widespread pasture use and erosion control.

  • ‘Bison’ was created for its cold tolerance and ability to grow in the northern climates.
  • ‘El Dorado’ and ‘Earl’ are big bluestem grass for forage for wild animals.
  • Growing big bluestem grass can also include ‘Kaw’, ‘Niagra’ and ‘ Roundtree’. These different cultivars are also used for game bird cover and to improve native planting sites.

Big Bluestem Grass

Common Names: Turkey Feet, Beard Grass
Genus: Andropogon
Species: gerardii

This grass is also called Turkey feet because the shape of the seed heads look like turkey feet. It is also called beard grass. The name big bluestem grass comes from the fact that this grass can grow to very big, 3 to 10 feet as a matter of fact. It blooms from June through September.

Big bluestem is known as a bunch grass because it grows in little hill shapes. This grass forms 3 inch bronze to purple or green seed heads. The tall and slender stems are blue-green in the summer.

The hairy blades, which can get to be 12 inches long and 1/2 inch wide, will get a red tinge on the leaves as they get older, and turn bronze in the fall.

Big bluestem grass grows in dense stands. This keeps other grasses from getting any sun and growing. As a result there are usually large areas covered only by big bluestem grass. This grass has very deep roots. This kept the wind that constantly blows on the prairie from blowing away the dirt. When settlers plowed the big bluestem grass there was nothing to keep the dirt from blowing away. That is how the dust bowl disaster of the 1930s began.

This type of grass was an important food for the American bison, because it was the biggest type of grass there was. This type of grass is part of the tall grass prairie, which is located in the midwestern United States. It does best growing in moist, well drained soil. Big bluestem is the tallest grass in the tall grass prairie.

Celeste G. 2000


“The Grassland Biome”, http://mbgnet.mobot.org/sets/grasslnd/plants/5.html, (6/4/00).

“Big Bluestem”, http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/Crops/Big_bluestem.html (7/31/00).

“Selected North Dakota and Minnesota Range Plants”, http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/ansci/range/eb69-6.htm#Big, (7/31/00).

Big Bluestem is a tall perennial ornamental grass that is native to North America. Reaching heights of 10′ (3.3 m) in optimum conditions, it has multiple colors/shades to it throughout the season. Starting at blueish green in Spring, it will grow relatively fast finally settling on a shade of brown to tan in the Fall. So, it is a warm-season clump forming grass. Also, it is an important grass for wildlife, there are many insects that will feed on the foliage including skippers and over a dozen grasshoppers. Additionally, various small birds also consume the seed as well.

Big Bluestem in Mid-Summer, surrounded by Swamp Milkweed.

This plant is absolutely gorgeous when swaying in the breeze. It almost seems to be dancing when moving back and forth on a windy Autumn day. In my experience I’ve found that during heavy rains this plant may be drooping heavily the next morning, only to recover a day later and once again stand tall. This plant is really an interesting ornamental grass to have a specimen, or dispersed in a backyard prairie or wildflower garden.

Big Bluestem Facts

  • It is the tallest of the North American prairie grasses
  • Big Bluestem is hardy from zones 3-9
  • Is very valuable forage for cattle, bison, other mammals
  • The foliage is also eaten by many beneficial insects, giving this plant high ecological value
  • Native Americans chewed the root for stomach pains
  • The grass by itself, when dried was used by Native Americans in a variety of ways
  • Big Bluestem is deer resistant
  • The Scientific Name of Big Bluestem is Andropogon gerardii

Big Bluestem Identification and Physical Description

This tall perennial grass that is blueish green during the Spring and Summer, and eventually turns to gold/brown tan. By August it should be reaching its maximum height for the growing season, which in optimum conditions (full sun, moist soil) should be 8-10′.

Stalk / Stem

Very erect and large, the stalks of Big Bluestem all emanate form a central clump.

Big Bluestem Blooming


Leaves are long and slender, being only 1/2″-1″ across but 10″ long or more. They wrap around the stalk by more than 50% of the stalk diameter.


The flower of Big Bluestem is paired spikelets that occur along the upper stems of the stalk. The top of the stalk will split into 3 smaller stems, each containing dozens of spikelets. The color is reddish-purple when blooming. The color will change to a golden brown in Autumn.


Roots of Big Bluestem consist of short rhizomes that go a couple inches deep, and fibrous roots that can extend 10′ deep in the soil. Most of the root mass is concentrating in the top 1-2′ of the soil. Interestingly, recent studies are suggesting that the deep roots don’t seem to be that important for water uptake. So perhaps the extremely deep roots serve another primary purpose?

Growing Conditions for Big Bluestem

Big Bluestem grows best in full sun and slightly moist soil. It can take dry conditions also, but may not be as tall and vigorous. It is quite versatile in that it can grow in almost any soil type, from clay to loam, and even slightly sandy. This was the most dominant prairie grass for it size and versatility. The optimum temperature for Big Bluestem to grow has been found to be 25 Celsius, or 77 Fahrenheit. So if temperatures are below or above this it will grow slower. How much slower will depend on the temperature.

How to care for Big Bluestem

If you grow this in conditions that it prefers (full sun, moist soil) then you will have virtually no problems growing healthy plants. It requires basically no care.


In Spring when insects are waking up, you can cut down and remove the stalks/foliage from the previous season. You can do this earlier, however there may be beneficial insects wintering inside the large stalks. So, I always suggest waiting until Spring temperatures have warmed sufficiently to where any larva would have emerged.

Big Bluestem emerging in Spring

How to Establish Big Bluestem

Growing Big Bluestem from seed is incredibly easy. The first year it will only grow to several feet high, but by the second or third year it should be topping 8-10′.

The seed is exceptionally cheap too. I’ve purchased from Roundstone seed several times, and find the quality and prices to be exceptional. Also, I have no affiliation with this company whatsoever, I just really like buying grass seed from them. Below is my short process on germinating Big Bluestem.

Germinating Big Bluestem Seeds in Pots

  1. In late early Spring, fill 4″ (10 cm) pots with moist potting soil to 1/2″ (12 mm) from the top.
  2. Pack the potting soil so that it isn’t loose, but slightly firm.
  3. Sprinkle 5-10 seeds on top, and press them firmly into the soil
  4. Sprinkle a handful of potting soil on top of the pot, just dusting the seeds. I always make that I can still see some of the seeds, so that they are partially covered.
  5. Keep moist until germination.

Also, you can winter sow Big Bluestem. Just repeat the process above, but set the seed tray outside but covered. Similar to the instruction in this video.

Below is a picture of a Little Bluestem seedling, however the seedlings are almost indistinguishable from Big Bluestem.

Direct Sowing Big Bluestem

You can also direct sow Big Bluestem in Autumn too. Just use a metal rake to disturb the top 1/2″ of soil, sprinkle seed in the area, and walk over it. The force from your shoes pressing the seed in the soil should be enough to maintain good soil/seed contact. Then, sprinkle a little bit of soil over the top to protect the seed from birds.

How to Save and Harvest Big Bluestem Seed

Once the seed head has turned brown and dried on the stalk for a week or two, you can collect them. Store them in a paper bag for a few weeks in a cool dry environment to allow the seed to dry completely. After this the seed can be stored for about six months and still be mostly viable.

Garden Uses

This plant may not be sold as an ornamental, but it should be. The blue green color is gorgeous during the Spring. And the late Summer bloom is very pretty too. As stated in the intro, when this plant sways in the breeze it is almost hypnotizing.

Big Bluestem in June, at the base of our Bee HotelBig Bluestem flanked by False Sunflower

Big Bluestem in August. Where did our Bee Hotel go?

So, you can use this plant as a border, in a wildflower garden, or as an individual accent in a flowerbed. Just make sure you give it some room per our reference table (bottom of this article) in a flowerbed. We have several specimens in our backyard micro-prairie. These grasses help provide support for other species that can droop over under their own weight. You can learn how to make your own small prairie by clicking below. It really is a great way to bring on the wildlife!

How To Make a Micro-Prairie


This plant is host to many insects, and provides forage for other insects. At least 12 different grass hoppers and many different skipper moths feed on the foliage. A partial list of Skippers caterpillars that feed on the foliage is below.

  • Byssus Skipper
  • Cobweb Skipper
  • Dakota Skipper
  • Delaware Skipper
  • Dusted Skipper
  • Ottoe Skipper

Additionally, Big Bluestem seeds are eaten by birds (particularly smaller songbirds). Furthermore the grass can provide cover to small mammals and other birds. This is really a great plant to grow if you want to attract wildlife.

Pests and diseases


Big Bluestem Grass Reference Table
Common Name Big Bluestem
Scientific name Andropogon gerardii
Bloom Time Late Summer / Fall
Bloom Duration 4 weeks
Color Red/Purple
Bloom Size Spiklets arrayed along the stem raceme
Characteristics Multiple stems at the termination of each stalk
Height ~ 6-10’ (~ 2-3 m)
Spacing/Spread 2-3’ (60-90 cm)
Light Requirements Full Sun / Partial Shade
Soil Types Clay, Loam, sand
Moisture Moist to dry
Maintenance None. Cut back in Spring after insects have emerged
Typical Use Meadow, prairie, roadside, erosion control
Fauna Associations Caterpillars and other insects feed on foliage
Larval Host Zabulon Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Homomok Skipper, Little Glassywing, Wood Nymph
Sowing Depth 0-1/8” (0-3 mm)
Stratification 60 days cold stratification. Or direct sow in Autumn/Winter
Native Range USDA Zones 3-10
Notes Growitbuildit.com


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Tags:big bluestem, grass, grasses, micro prairie, prairie grass

Andropogon gerardii, ‘Prairie View’-IN Ecotype
Big Bluestem, ‘Prairie View’-IN Ecotype

A warm season bunchgrass; used for erosion control in sand and gravel pits, mine spoil and on roadsides; contributes to diversified biomass production; a high quality livestock forage; provides food and cover for wildlife.

General Product Information:

Item Number: ANDGER09
Species Type: Native
Product Categories:
Biomass, Erosion Control & Revegetation, Grasses & Grass-like Species, Uplands & Meadows, Wildlife Habitat & Food Plots
Classification: Herbaceous Perennial
Characteristics: Blue nodes; yellow seedheads; foliage turns to colorful hues of brown in the winter.
Habitat: Riverbanks, roadsides, meadows, open woods, savannas, tallgrass prairies.
Bloom Period: July to October
Foliage Color: Green
Height: Up to 7.0 Ft
Minimum Root Depth: 20 in
pH: 6.0 – 7.5

Indicator Regions (view map & key):

Northcentral & Northeast: FACU
Midwest: FAC
Eastern Mountains and Piedmont: FAC
Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plain: FAC


Shade: Full Sun
Drought: High
Salt: Moderate

Seed Information:

Approximate seeds per lb: 144,000
Seeding Rate: When used as part of a mix, ensure that the mix consists of not less than 1.0% and not more than 50.0% of the total.
Truax Seedbox: Fluffy

Big Bluestem

Many people call this the “King” of native grasses because of the quality and quantity of forage produced. It is a warm season, sod forming grass that prefers bottom land sites with good, well drained soils, but is adapted to many soil types. In a mix with other warm season forages, or in a solid stand by itself, this grass provides excellent forage, palatability, and nutrition for all classes of livestock. When left un-grazed or hayed, the mature plant turns a reddish purple color in the fall with a “turkey foot” seed head.
Bonanza Big Bluestem
Andropogon gerardii, Vitman This Big Bluestem cultivar is well adapted in the Great Plains and Midwest. It produces forage with high in vitro dry matter digestibility (IVDMD) that results in improved animal gains of 18 to 50 lbs. more per acre than previously available cultivars when utilized by beef cattle in well-managed grazing systems. Bonanza, developed for use in pastures during the hot months of summer, is an improved warm-season grass variety that increases beef production and net profit per acre. Use Bonanza by itself or in a mixture with other palatable and nutritious warm-season grasses.

Big Bluestem Seeds 8000


Big Bluestem Seeds 8000 (Andropogon gerardii) is referred to as the “King” of native grasses and both the most prevalent and widely distributed native grass as it is found in all types of prairie grass habitats. Big Bluestem is a perennial, warm season bunchgrass growing 1 to 2 m (3-6′) tall. It is found in a wide range of soil conditions from wet, to poorly drained to hot, dry and open sandy soil. In late August it produces interesting 3-branched flower heads, resembling turkey’s feet. Lush blue-green stems turn reddish-brown in fall. While Big Bluestem is a bunchgrass that grows thicker through side sprouting of the crown, it also produces rhizomes (which are modified stems that grow underground) that in turn produce new plants. Rhizomes tend to be 5-7.5 cm (2-3″) deep while the true roots of Big Bluestem can grow up to 3 m (10′) deep! Hardy to Zone 4.

How to Grow

550 seed/gram. Native grasses do best when planted in the fall, between Oct. 15th and Nov. 15th. A late fall sowing naturally stratifies any seed that may be dormant. An early spring sowing in April will work but often not as effectively. If ideal growing conditions are unavailable, the seed may go dormant and not germinate until the spring of the following year.

Many native plants will not bloom until the second year of growth when grown from seed. Avoid the use of supplemental fertilizer as this encourages weeds at the expense of the native plants. During the establishment year, native species plantings should be watered when dictated by the weather. The following year’s growth adapts easily to local climate and soil conditions needing only what nature provides. Mow to 20 cm (8″) height at least once through the first year of growth should aggressive weeds threaten to take over and again after the fall frosts have reduced annual foliage. Consider a controlled burn of prairie species where municipal laws permit. The encroachment of woody or non-prairie vegetation is curtailed by fire allowing the prairie community to thrive.

Plant of the Week

Range map of Andropogon gerardii. States are colored green where the species may be found.

Andropogon gerardii. Photos by Jennifer Anderson, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

Flowering big bluestem and syrphid fly. Photo by Sally and Andy Wasowski, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

By Ryan Shurette

Big bluestem is a warm-season grass native to the eastern two thirds of the United States. It is found from the mid-western short grass prairies to the coastal plain, where it naturally serves as fuel for periodic fire. This species is large and robust as bluestems go, with mature plants commonly reaching 6 to 8 feet in height. The rhizomes are short and scaly and the color of the leaves varies from light yellow-green to burgundy. The seed head is coarse and not fluffy as in other bluestems. Individual seed heads often have three spikelets that look like a turkey foot.

“Big blue” as it is commonly called is a climax prairie species. However, it can tolerate a wide variety of well-drained soils and typically does well on low fertility sites. Big blue is commonly used in erosion control plantings; although it is sometimes slow to get started. Once it has been established, however, it provides excellent stability for sandy areas. This species is also a good native choice for grazing forage and is very palatable to livestock. As with the other bluestems, big blue also provides excellent wildlife habitat. Bobwhite quail and other ground-nesting birds use this clump-forming grass for nesting and forage cover. In the longleaf pine ecosystem, the perennial big bluestem contributes to the fine flashy fuel needed for the maintenance of the ecosystem.

Bluestem can be used in the restoration of native vegetation in agricultural or pasture areas. It is best established by conventional tillage, if possible. A native seed no-till drill may also be used. It is very important to kill all non-native pasture grasses prior to planting native warm season grasses. This is typically done using herbicides. Seeding rate for big bluestem ranges from 4 to 12 pounds per acre, depending on future use. For wildlife (quail) habitat establishment, use the lower rate. The higher rates are generally used for erosion control and grazing. Fertilizer is generally not recommended, as it typically promotes weedy competition. Several varieties of big blue are available from commercial seed producers. Try to use a local ecotype if possible when restoring native vegetation in an area.

For More Information

  • PLANTS Profile – Andropogon gerardii, big bluestem

Big Bluestem Stock Photos and Images

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  • Big bluestem prairie grass Ohio
  • Macro Closeup Lush Big Bluestem Tall Grass with Lush Green Forest Background in late Summer month of August
  • Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii).
  • Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii
  • Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardi), Meadow Trail, Whitewater State Park, Altura, Minnesota.
  • native prairie, Loess Hills, Mount Talbot State Preserve, Iowa USA
  • Big bluestem grass in the wind at London Wetland Center, England
  • Dew-covered stems and leaves of big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii)
  • Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) grass seed head emerging, Marion County, Illinois
  • 63863-02519 Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) grass seed head Marion Co. IL
  • Cicada
  • 63863-02604 Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) grass seed head emerging Marion Co. IL
  • Dry grass stalks.
  • 06642-00709 Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) male on Big Bluestem Marion Co. IL
  • A young sedge wren perched on big bluestem at Horseshoe Bend
  • Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi)
  • Dewy spiderweb in prairie hanging from big bluestem grass during the morning.
  • Tallgrass prairie at Mount St. Francis, a prairie restoration project at, Dubuque, Iowa, USA
  • Texas Prickly Poppy and Turkey Peak at Enchanted Rock State Park in the Texas Hill Country near Fredericksburg and west of Austin. Close-up wildflower
  • Big bluestem prairie grass Ohio
  • Bluestem pricklypoppy, Argemone albiflora, Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, USA
  • Big bluestem prairie grass Ohio
  • Big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii).
  • Lady standing behind large patch of native Big Blue Stem’ grass
  • Big bluestem grass. Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Wisconsin.
  • native prairie, Loess Hills, Mount Talbot State Preserve, Iowa USA
  • Dew-covered flowers of big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii), showing yellow anthers (male) dangling beneath magenta-colored stigmas (female).
  • Grasshopper on Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) grass seed head, Marion County, Illinois
  • Big bluestem grass in sunset at Eksta on the island of Gotland, Sweden
  • Big Bluestem grasses at Blue Mounds State Park in Minnesota
  • Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii
  • Tall native grasses such big Bluestem Turkey Foot
  • Big bluestem grass at Nine Mile Prairie.
  • Flowering grasses
  • Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi)
  • The sun sets behind the Sandhills of North Central Nebraska, casting a warm glow over the gently rolling hills.
  • Trail across the tallgrass prairie, a prairie restoration project at Mount St. Francis Prairie, Dubuque, Iowa, USA
  • Texas Prickly Poppy and Turkey Peak at Enchanted Rock State Park in the Texas Hill Country near Fredericksburg and west of Austin. Growing along trail
  • Big Bluestem grass Andropogon gerardii, Tallgrass Prairie, Hole In The Mountain Prairie, TNC Preserve, Lake Benton Minnesota
  • C-17A Globemaster III
  • Big bluestem prairie grass Ohio
  • Big bluestem grass waves in the late afternoon breeze in front of a C-17A from the 445th Airlift Wing, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Air Force Reserve Command, at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, Sept. 12, 2017. Big bluestem is a tall grass native to much of the Great Plains and prairie regions of central North America and is the primary grass used for erosion control at Tinker AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)
  • usfwsmtnprairie 7449929196 Big Bluestem
  • Big bluestem grass. Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Wisconsin.
  • usfwsmtnprairie 12758362934 Big Bluestem Waving in the Wind
  • Dew-covered flowers of big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii), showing yellow anthers (male) dangling beneath magenta stigmas (female).
  • usfwsmtnprairie 15952575030 Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) Sand Lake WMD
  • Dew-covered planthopper (Acanalonia conica) on big bluestem grass stalk.
  • usfwsmtnprairie 12823517313 Ring necked Pheasant Roosters in Big Bluestem 1
  • A young sedge wren perched on big bluestem at Horseshoe. A young sedge wren perched on big bluestem at Horseshoe
  • usfwsmidwest 6189543608 A young sedge wren perched on big bluestem at Horseshoe Bend
  • Panoramic view of a prairie on the east side of Devli’s Lake State Park, near Baraboo, Sauk County, Wisconsin.
  • usfwsmtnprairie 14487806087 Pair of ring-necked pheasants in big bluestem on Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge
  • Tall Prairie blue stem grass in silhouette as sun sets, Missouri USA
  • usfwsmtnprairie 14635029543 Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) in flower Sand Lake Wetland Management District 01
  • Prairie wild grass close-up micro macro purple lavender vertical cut out floral flora plant plants
  • Texas Prickly Poppy and Turkey Peak at Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas Hill Country near Fredericksburg and west of Austin. Texas Wildflowers. Texas
  • big bluestem grass in late autumn andropogon gerardi northern illinois prairie
  • Big bluestem grass at Nine Mile Prairie.
  • Big bluestem prairie grass Ohio
  • Big Blue Stem Grass
  • Big bluestem grass. Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Wisconsin.
  • close up of bluestem grass in late autumn andropogon gerardi northern illinois prairie
  • Dew-covered planthopper (Acanalonia conica) on big bluestem grass stalk in early morining sun.
  • Bench Overlooking Prairie
  • Band-winged grasshopper (Hippiscus ocelote) on stalk of big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) in meadow in Virginia.
  • . Budd’s flora of the Canadian Prairie Provinces. Botany; Botanique. Fig. 32. Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardi Vitman. 97. Please note that these images are extracted from scanned page images that may have been digitally enhanced for readability – coloration and appearance of these illustrations may not perfectly resemble the original work.. : Research Branch, Agriculture Canada
  • Rolled hay bale rolls in plowed cut field farm pasture near Cambria San Luis Obispo County California
  • Prairie wild grass bouquet floral plant plants lavender purple prairie brome bromus kalmil indian grass sorg hastrumnutans
  • White Prickly Poppy and Bluebonnet in the Texas Hill Country. Prickly Poppy at Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg, TX. Texas Hill Country Wildflowers
  • Big bluestem grass at Nine Mile Prairie.
  • big bluestem prairie grass Ohio
  • Big bluestem grass. Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Wisconsin.
  • . Carnegie Institution of Washington publication. . POTATOES BARLEY 9 10 BARLEY WHEAT GRASS BIG BLUESTEM. Please note that these images are extracted from scanned page images that may have been digitally enhanced for readability – coloration and appearance of these illustrations may not perfectly resemble the original work.. Carnegie Institution of Washington. Washington, Carnegie Institution of Washington
  • Rolled hay bale rolls in plowed cut field farm pasture near Cambria San Luis Obispo County California
  • wild grass composition floral plant plants yellow blue flora glow prairie brome bromus kalmil wild rye artistic vertical
  • Close-up of Texas Prickly Poppy Flower AKA White Prickly Poppy AKA Bluestem Prickly Poppy. At Enchanted Rock in the Texas Hill Country Central Texas.
  • Big bluestem grass and flowers at Nine Mile Prairie.
  • Blasing star flower restored prairie Ohio
  • Big bluestem grass. Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Wisconsin.
  • . Bulletin. Natural history; Science. A patch of virgin prairie in northern Illinois with big bluestem grass, wild quinine, and prairie gayfeathers.. Please note that these images are extracted from scanned page images that may have been digitally enhanced for readability – coloration and appearance of these illustrations may not perfectly resemble the original work.. Field Museum of Natural History. : The Museum
  • Rolled hay bale rolls in plowed cut field farm pasture near Cambria San Luis Obispo County California
  • Prairie wild grass composition floral plant plants lavender blue flora indian grass sorg hastrumnutans artistic close-up
  • White Prickly Poppy AKA Texas Prickly Poppy at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in the Texas Hill Country. Texas Wildflower in the Texas Hill Country
  • A young girl stands in big bluestem grass at Nine Mile Prairie.
  • Blasing star flower restored prairie Ohio
  • Closeup of Tall Grass, Big Bluestem, Covered with Winter Ice and Snow at Lake Quivira, Kansas, near Kansas City. Such Vegetation Makes Excellent Cover for Wildlife 02/1975
  • . Bulletin. Natural history; Science. expanse of big bluestem grass was flecked with asters, goldenrods, and gentians. The northern two-thirds of Illinois was mostly prairie surrounding isolated groves, while the southern one-third was principally forest enclosing patches of prairie. Many of the groves were given names—some for the predominant tree they contained, such as Bur Oak Grove or Maple Grove; others for a settler who homesteaded along the edge of the grove, such as Downer’s Grove or Walker’s Grove. Many of the prairies also had names, such as Looking-glass Prairie or Hawkins’ Prairie.
  • Tractor and rolled hay bale rolls in plowed cut field farm pasture near Cambria San Luis Obispo County California
  • Prairie wild grass arrangement floral plant plants blue sky flora prairie brome bromus kalmil indian grass sorg hastrumnutans
  • White Texas Prickly Poppy. This Texas Wildflower was photographed at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in the Texas Hill Country on a sunny day. Poppy
  • Blasing star flower restored prairie Ohio

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Big Bluestem, Indiangrass and Switchgrass

Jimmy C. Henning
Department of Agronomy

Many warm-season perennial grasses were once an important part of the plant community throughout Missouri. But crop rotations, overgrazing, lack of regular fire and increased competition from cool-season grasses and legumes have caused these grasses to disappear from much of the state. However, these grasses can complement cool-season pastures if managed properly. They are highly palatable to livestock prior to heading and can produce beef animal gain more than 2 pounds per day during summer.

Warm-season grasses for forage have been reintroduced successfully across Missouri, contributing to both pasture and hay systems. Management is the key to establishment and top production.

Characteristics of warm-season grasses

Unlike tall fescue and other cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses are most productive from June to Sept. 1. Therefore, a combination of separate cool- and warm-season pastures can be managed to supply a more constant supply of high-quality forage throughout the season than either cool- or warm-season grasses alone.

Of the many native warm-season grasses, switchgrass, big bluestem and indiangrass show the most potential for Missouri. (Caucasian bluestem, Plains bluestem and bermudagrass are introduced warm-season grasses that have potential as well.) All are called warm-season grasses because of their adaptation to warm-day climates, but they differ in their seasonal production of forage. In general, switchgrass greens up and matures earliest, big bluestem is intermediate and indiangrass matures latest. Caucasian bluestem fits between switchgrass and big bluestem.

These native grass seedlings have very low vigor and do not compete well with weeds. Consequently, switchgrass, big bluestem and indiangrass are moderately difficult to establish and may need 2 years before they can be hayed or grazed. In exceptional years, plantings may establish well enough to allow grazing in the second year.

Warm-season grass pastures won’t withstand continuous, close grazing or close clipping without reducing yield the following year. Rotational grazing is mandatory to keep productive warm-season grass stands.

In return for careful management, a farmer can produce two to four tons of forage per acre on well-fertilized, warm-season grasses between late June and early September. Assuming a mature cow requires 30 pounds of forage per day, one acre of warm-season grass can supply sufficient forage for two cows during the summer.


Warm-season grasses have traditionally been slow to establish because their chaffy, hairy seed is hard to handle using conventional grain drills, and their seedlings are poor competitors with weeds.

Switchgrass seed is hard and slick and can be handled without special drills. Big bluestem and indiangrass seed are chaffy and will not flow through conventional drills. Seed can be debearded — a process which removes much of the chaff and hair from seed of big bluestem and indiangrass — allowing them to be seeded using conventional equipment. Rangeland drills such as those made by Horizon,

Marliss, Truax and others can handle non-debearded seed. It is often easier to use debearded seed than to find one of the special rangeland drills.

Warm-season grasses may be planted into a conventional, tilled seedbed or drilled into standing or killed vegetation.

Using conventional tillage, the seedbed should be free of weeds, fine-textured and firm. After tillage, the ground should be rolled with a cultipacker for firmness. If the seed is broadcast, the field should be cultipacked or rolled a second time to place the seed in good contact with the soil and to cover the seed properly. Seeding with a drill that has press wheels eliminates the need for a second rolling. Whether drilling or broadcast/cultipacking, seed depth should be no greater than 1/4 or 1/2 inch.

Non-debearded seed can be debearded by mixing the seed with the fertilizer. Apply half of the seed at a time and make two trips over the field, lapping in between the first tracks on the second trip. Remember to roll the field before and after broadcasting.

Another seeding method would be to make a spring seeding into fall-seeded spring oats. The oats will winter kill. A no-till drill is needed to cut through the mulch. Seeding into wheat or another grain crop that will grow in spring is not recommended. The growing crop offers too much competition.

Excessive weed competition is a major cause of slow stand establishment. Weed control can be accomplished by a combination of timely tillage, herbicides (pre- and post-emergence) and clipping.

Atrazine can be used as a pre-emergence herbicide to control grassy and broadleaf weeds on certain types of soil when establishing big bluestem or switchgrass. However, atrazine is toxic to indiangrass seedlings.

Shortly after planting, apply atrazine on the surface at 1 pound active ingredient per acre. Do not incorporate. Atrazine injury can occur on soils of less than 2 percent organic matter with neutral pH, and where atrazine is in the zone where the root of the warm-season grass emerges. Atrazine injury is more likely when seed is broadcast rather than drilled. Remember, do not use atrazine when establishing indiangrass.

Nebraska research has shown that using atrazine increases big bluestem and switchgrass pasture production in the year of seeding. (Table 1.)

When atrazine is not used, as with indiangrass, the seedbed should be prepared early. Allow the weeds to emerge and then use a burn-down herbicide such as Gramoxone. Grass can then be drilled into the seedbed, which should not be further disturbed. Tillage after burn-down will expose ungerminated weed seed and increase problems.

Table 1
Effect of atrazine on yields of big bluestem and switchgrass during the establishment year.1

  • Without atrazine
    680 pounds of yield per acre
  • Wth atrazine
    6400 pounds of yield per acre


  • Without atrazine
    0 pounds of yield per acre
  • Wth atrazine
    4940 pounds of yield per acre
1Mead, Nebraska

Time of seeding

Warm-season grasses are best established during April and May. Cost-share programs require that they be planted between April 15 and June 10. Early planting is critical even though warm-season grasses do not germinate when soil temperatures are below 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Early establishment allows seedings to develop good root systems before summer drought and greatly increases the ability of the grasses to compete with weeds.

Native grass seed typically contains higher percentages of dormant seed than cool-season forages. One way to break dormancy is to chill seeds that have absorbed water. Planting early into cool soil will chill the seed and can cause dormant seed to germinate.

Seeding into warmer soil in late spring can be helpful in controlling weeds. The first flush of weeds is allowed to germinate and then is killed by final tillage or contact herbicide just prior to planting. Ideally, this practice would result in the shortest period of bare ground and would get grass seedlings up as quick as possible to compete with other weeds.


While warm-season grasses are good producers on low-fertility soils, adequate P and K will increase stand vigor and production when these elements are low in the soil. Having the soil tested is the only way to know the proper level of P, K and lime to use. Lime is not necessary if soil pH is 5.5 or higher.

Nitrogen is not recommended when establishing warm-season grasses because it leads to increased weed competition. However, established stands will respond positively to 40 to 60 pounds of N per acre. Nitrogen should be applied when early growth is at least 3 to 5 inches tall. Earlier application will favor weeds and invasion of cool-season grasses into the stand.

Seeding rates for pasture and hay

For pasture or hay use, only one species should be seeded per field. Warm-season grasses vary in growth characteristics making it difficult to manage mixtures. Seeding rates for pasture and hay are found in Table 2.

Table 2
Seeding rate for species planted alone

  • 165,000 seeds per pound
  • 7 pounds of pure live seed per acre
  • 389,000 seeds per pound
  • 6 pounds of pure live seed per acre


  • 175,000 seeds per pound
  • 7 pounds of pure live seed per acre

Warm-season grass seed should be bought and seeded on a pure live seed (PLS) basis. To determine the percent PLS, multiply percent germination by percent purity and divide by 100. Certification requirements for switchgrass, big bluestem and indiangrass are lower for germination and purity than for cool-season forages like tall fescue and red clover (Table 3). For example, a bag of certified indiangrass seed weighing 100 pounds may contain only 11 pounds of pure live seed. Be sure to determine how much bulk seed is required to deliver the required pounds of pure live seed per acre (Table 4).

Table 3
Minimum purity germination and pure live seed (PLS) content of certified seed. (Information from Missouri Seed Improvement Association.)

Tall Fescue

  • 95 percent pure seed
  • 80 percent germination1
  • 76 percent pure live seed

Red clover

  • 99 percent pure seed
  • 85 percent germination1
  • 84 percent pure live seed
  • 80 percent pure seed
  • 50 percent germination1
  • 40 percent pure live seed
  • 90 percent pure seed
  • 70 percent germination1
  • 63 percent pure live seed
  • 25 percent pure seed
  • 45 percent germination1
  • 11 percent pure live seed
1 Includes percent hard seed for red clover and dormant seed for warm-season grasses.

Table 4
Determining pounds of bulk seed required per acre from percent PLS and desired PLS seeding rate

Desired percent of planting rate 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
10 percent PLS of the seed to be planted 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100
15 percent PLS of the seed to be planted 7 13 20 27 33 40 47 53 60 67
20 percent PLS of the seed to be planted 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 45 50
25 percent PLS of the seed to be planted 4 8 12 16 20 24 28 32 36 40
30 percent PLS of the seed to be planted 3 7 20 13 17 20 23 27 30 33
35 percent PLS of the seed to be planted 3 6 9 11 24 17 20 23 26 29
40 percent PLS of the seed to be planted 3 5 8 10 13 15 18 20 23 25
45 percent PLS of the seed to be planted 2 4 7 9 11 13 16 18 20 22
50 percent PLS of the seed to be planted 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18 20

To use Table 4, locate the percent PLS of the seed to be planted in the column on the left and the desired PLS planting rate in the row along the top. The proper bulk seeding rate is found where the percent ‘PLS’ column and ‘pounds PLS per acre’ row meet. For example, if big bluestem is 40 percent PLS and the desired seeding rate is 7 pounds PLS per acre, 18 pounds of bulk seed would have to be drilled per acre.

Native grass seed typically contains higher percentages of dormant seed than do introduced cool-season grasses or legumes. Dormant seed is assumed to be alive and is counted in total germination, but seed companies are not required to specify the percent dormant seed on the label. With the new minimum seeding rates, first-year stands can be sparse simply due to dormant seed. As a consequence, stands should not be considered a failure until the second summer at the earliest. If one or more seedlings are found per square foot of soil, the stand will be adequate.

Variety selection

Native (local) seed and certified varieties are both acceptable seed sources in Missouri. Use seed harvested from native stands near the place of origin, and use named varieties when adaptation to the area has been demonstrated (Table 5).

Table 5
Recommended varieties of warm-season grasses for Missouri, 1987

Grass cultivar Yield per acre1
Big bluestem
Rountree 3.4 tons Preferred variety for hay production, adapted statewide. Good seedling vigor and forage productivity. Matures 2 weeks earlier than Kaw. Origin: Iowa
Kaw 2.9 tons Preferred pasture variety; adapted statewide, especially to droughty sites. Origin: Kansas
Pawnee 2.8 tons Adapted to north Missouri only. Maturity similar to Rountree. Origin: Nebraska
Rumsey 3.0 tons Preferred variety; adapted statewide. Good seedling vigor and superior forage production given normal rainfall. Does not establish well in dry years. Origin: Illinois
Osage 2.7 tons Adapted statewide. Well adapted for droughty sites. Origin: Kansas
Oto 2.3 tons Acceptable for north Missouri only. Origin: Nebraska
Cheyenne N/A Not a certified variety, although noncertified seed is available. Adapted to droughty sites and has been used statewide with good success by Missouri Department of Conservation. Origin: Oklahoma
Holt 2.4 tons Adapted for north Missouri only. Very early maturing. Origin: Holt County, Nebraska
Nebraska 54 N/A Adapted for north Missouri. More productive than “Holt.” Origin: Nebraska
Cave-In-Rock N/A Preferred variety, adapted statewide. Adapted to lowland and upland sites with good palatability and animal gains. More dormant seed than “Blackwell” and tends to be slow to establish. Origin: Illinois
Pathfinder 3.7 tons Adapted statewide. Easier to establish than “Cave-In-Rock”. Origin: Nebraska
Trailblazer N/A Adapted statewide. Selected from “Pathfinder”, for increased palatability and digestibility. Gives superior animal gains in Nebraska. A poor establisher. Origin: Nebraska
Blackwell N/A Adapted statewide. Less forage production than “Cave-In-Rock”. Fine-stemmed and rust-resistant. Origin: Blackwell, Oklahoma
Alamo N/A Later in maturity than “Kaw” big bluestem. Adapted to south Missouri only. About 30 percent winterkilled at Clinton, Missouri. A lowland type that is slow to establish. Origin: Texas.

1 Data from Forage Systems Research Center, 1984-86, one harvest per year.

For native or non-certified seed, use seed whose place of origin is within 250 to 400 miles south, or within 100 to 150 miles north of the intended location of use. Extreme southern-grown seed may produce stands that die during winter or at least not produce viable seed. Stands planted to northern-grown seed will tend to mature early and be less productive.

Named or certified cultivars are selections whose characteristics are known and whose area of adaptation has been determined. The location where certified seed are produced is less critical than with native seed. The important characteristic of named varieties is that they have proven adaptation in the area to be seeded. Varieties adapted to more northern sites will have the same general limitations as native seed grown in those regions. For example, ‘Holt’ indiangrass was developed in Holt County, Nebraska, which is more than 140 miles north of the Missouri-Iowa line. ‘Holt’ was very early maturing and was low in productivity in trials at the NRCS Plant Materials Center at Elsberry, Mo. and at the Forage Systems Research Center at Linneus. All species were harvested only once in late July or early August, and yields represent a relative estimate of bulk productivity. No effort was made to harvest them according to stage of maturity. Be aware that productivity is difficult to predict in native grasses because individual sites are variable and maturity dates vary with latitude. Early maturity usually means less forage production. Moving northern-adapted varieties south shortens time to maturity and vice versa.

Management and use

During the seeding year, warm-season grasses should not be grazed unless forage production is exceptional. Mowing or 2,4-D can be used to control weeds in seedling stands. After June, leave at least 6 inches of grass stubble when mowing. Applications of 2,4-D can be made after the grass has four or five leaves. In the second year, 2 pounds of atrazine may be used in switchgrass, big bluestem and indiangrass (established indiangrass is tolerant of atrazine) to control annual grass weeds.

Warm-season grasses can be utilized for hay production, grazing or both. In general, pastures should not be clipped or grazed too often or too short, or yield and vigor will suffer the following year.

Switchgrass begins growth 2 to 3 weeks earlier than big bluestem, which is about a week earlier than indiangrass (Figure 1). Quality of switchgrass is good if grazed early but very poor if grazing is delayed until heading. Generally, grazing of switchgrass needs to begin before the cool-season forage is depleted or switchgrass will be too far ahead of the cattle. Beginning later will result in poor animal acceptance and gains. Start grazing when switchgrass is 10 to 12 inches tall and graze heavily so it is grazed down to about 4 inches in 2 to 3 weeks. Remove the cattle and allow a month to recover. Graze the regrowth to no less than an 8-inch stubble height. Leave at least 8 inches of leaves and stubble after Sept. 1. The plants stop growth in early September and need the stubble to survive the winter.

Separating the switchgrass into smaller pasture units and grazing rotationally is recommended to provide more control over the grazing period and to stagger pasture availability. Also, it is difficult to manage switchgrass pastures as the sole source of forage from June through August. Having the option to move back onto a rested cool-season pasture or to another warm-season pasture such as big bluestem will help make it more practical to work around the long rest periods in the switchgrass rotation.

Big bluestem and indiangrass are later maturing than switchgrass and are more complementary in grazing systems with cool-season grasses. Rotational grazing should be practiced beginning when forage is 12 inches to 18 inches tall (about June 1), removing cattle when 6 inches of leaves and stubble remain. Allow 3 to 4 weeks recovery time depending on moisture. Manage pastures so that 8 inches of leaves and stubble are present on each pasture when grazing ends in early to mid-September. For haying followed by grazing, cut in the boot stage leaving a 3- to 4-inch stubble. Graze lightly from August until Sept. 1 leaving 8 inches of stubble.

Special uses of warm-season grasses

On critical areas, warm-season grasses will control erosion. They will provide low maintenance cover on banks and roadsides of state and U.S. highways.

Also, wildlife biologists and upland game managers use warm-season grasses for game habitat, nesting and holding areas. The stubble of the grasses remains erect over the winter providing nesting cover and protected “trafficways.” Little bluestem, lovegrass and sideoats grama are usually in these seeding mixtures in addition to big bluestem and indiangrass.

Warm-season grass forage quality

Forage quality measurements (protein, fiber, digestibility) of warm-season grasses have consistently been lower than measurements for cool-season grasses at the same growth stage. This quality difference has led scientists to conclude that warm-season grasses would be poor feed for growing livestock. However, more careful studies of actual animal gains from cool-season and warm-season pastures has revealed that native grass pastures may be much more nutritious than their quality analysis indicates. In an MU trial at the Forage Systems Research Center at Linneus, Mo., milk production of beef cows grazing big bluestem was equivalent to that of cows grazing high-quality bromegrass-alfalfa pastures.

It is now clear that it is unfair to compare native grasses and cool-season grasses according to chemical analyses alone. However, no better system has been found. MU is continuing to study how to accurately describe the forage quality of native grasses.


Native warm-season grasses are good, viable options to complement present cool-season pastures in north and south Missouri. Good management at establishment and afterward will result in high-yielding, high-quality forage during the summer months when cool-season grass pastures are at a disadvantage.

This guide prepared with the assistance of Richard Brown, NRCS (retired); Steve Clubine, MDC; Jim Gerrish, MU; and Paul Ohlenbusch, Kansas State University.

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