What is prairie grass?

KANGAROO GRASS

Themeda australis

DESCRIPTION

Kangaroo Grass is a densely tufted perennial with short, fine, soft, strappy leaves. It is highly ornamental in its flowering state in spring/summer, with green to blue-green foliage during spring, slowly changing to purple and later to brown during autumn and winter. It forms a large tussock shape, if not mown, from which emerge long and graceful tillers of flower spikes up to 1.5m, which turn a rich golden bronze colour during late summer and autumn.

CHOICE OF GRASS SPECIES

  1. Kangaroo Grass is probably the least site-specific of all Australian plants, extending from arid inland to the alps and the coast.
  2. Being a vigorously growing perennial it can quickly shade many competing weeds.
  3. Spring fire on a site containing soil-stored Kangaroo Grass seed promotes germination and temporarily reduces weed competition.
  4. As a spring/summer growing grass, tolerant to many herbicides (chlorosulfuron, glyphosphate etc.), it is relatively easy to establish in areas dominated by autumn/winter growing herbs and weeds.
  5. It is highly tolerant of shading by trees and shrubs.

SITE PREPARATION

The sowing site for seed and Grow-cell seedlings should be free of other summer-growing grasses such as couch, paspalum, kikuyu, nut grasses etc. If these grasses exist, then repeated herbicide spraying at 3-4 week intervals will be needed before sowing. Seed does not germinate readily until the daily average temperature is at least 20 degrees C. Being a summer-flowering species, maximum growth is achieved by sowing in spring/summer.

CULTIVATION

Seed sowing:

  1. No tilling of the site is necessary prior to the establishment of Kangaroo Grass, nor is the application of nutrient rich fertilisers.
  2. Under optimum conditions, seeds will germinate from 7 days to 2 weeks after sowing.
  3. Seed should be slightly buried, in order to obtain the greatest seed to soil contact and most benefit from soil moisture. Absence of soil contact and moisture affects the germination of the seed.
  4. If soil is compacted, use a pitchfork to aerate the soil and loosen it.
  5. Only a thin, maximum 1cm layer of leaf litter or straw may be applied after seed planting to help the soil retain moisture. Do not mulch the area heavily as this will prevent germination.
  6. Keep area moist (water once a day) for up to 6 weeks until you see strong seedlings.

Hand broadcasting or hydro-seeding is a cost effective method of establishing Kangaroo Grass. If hydro-mulching is the method used, great care must be taken to only spread a very thin layer of mulch as the mulch may smother the seed if applied too thickly.

Grow-cell Seedlings:

Kangaroo Grass seedlings are usually supplied in trays that contain 312 grow-cells, each 3cm square by 5cm depth. Each cell is in the form of an inverted pyramid for easy removal of seedlings when planting out.

For pure dense stands established quickly, we suggest planting Grow-cells at 10 to 15cm spacings. This will provide 50 to 100 seedlings per square metre. For mixed planting with other native species, we suggest planting Grow-cells at 100cm spacings, giving 1 seedling per square metre.

ESTABLISHMENT:

It is recommended that seed or seedlings be planted in spring or early summer to take advantage of the peak growing season. However, seeds require a minimum of 20 deg. C to germinate and seedlings respond to being planted out at most times of the year.

To protect slopes from wind or water erosion after sowing seed, a cover crop such as Japanese millet may be hydro-seeded onto the area. The millet binds the soil but being an annual, dies out and allows the Kangaroo Grass to dominate and take over.

Grow-cell seedlings should be well watered and kept moist, water at least every day or two, depending on weather conditions, for a period of up to a month or so.

MANAGEMENT

Once established, Kangaroo Grass will need no further maintenance except, very importantly:

  1. An annual mowing or slashing in winter. Alternatively, the area may be burned every 2 to 3 years to reduce dead foliage and encourage new growth.
  2. Reduce weeds in the area. If you don’t have time to herbicide or hand weed, just make sure you cut off any weed seed heads before they fall. This way you will manage the land and gradually reduce the weeds.
  3. Weed the area before seed of the native grass falls. If you do not take care of the weeds before the native grass seed falls, you will have exotic and native grass coming up together, something to be avoided!

These methods have proven to be effective in producing a green cover during summer and encourage germination of new seeds to thicken up the area planted.

Kangaroo Grass is extremely drought tolerant and, once established, requires no summer watering.

Scientific name(s)

Prairie grass

Bromus wildenowii , syn B. catharticus, syn B. uniloides

Strengths

  • vigourous winter, early spring growth.
  • Good summer production where moisture available

Limitations

  • Perenniality short-lived.
  • Not suited to poorly drained/heavy textured/infertile soils

Plant description

Plant: densely tufted, short-lived perennial, grows up to 100 cm tall

Stem: large tillers

Leaves: large-leaved, up to 30 cm by 8 mm; rolled on emergence. Very short hairs on upper side. Slightly rough margins.

Seedhead: open long pendulous panicle. Spikelets in groups of 4 with 6-12 florets/spikelet.

Seeds: Large, oblong, grooved grain, pointed at both ends.

Pasture type and use

Special purpose pasture for cool season growth and summer quality. Main use is by dairy farmers.

Where it grows

> 800 mm

Soils

Very well drained & highly fertile; light/medium textured; pH >5.5

Temperature

5-30°C

Companion species

Legumes: red, white and sub. clover, lucerne

Herbs: plantain, chicory

Sowing/planting rates as single species

20-60 kg/ha; sow at ~10 mm depth. De-awned seed is available for easier sowing. Fungicide treated seed required to protect from head smut disease

Sowing/planting rates in mixtures

15-25 kg/ha

Sowing time

When soil temp. >10°C. Autumn, or early spring in long growing seasons. Sensitive to cold if sown late autumn/winter.

Inoculation

Not applicable.

Fertiliser

Requires highly fertile soil. Correct any nutrient deficiencies, especially K, N, P, S

Maintenance fertliser

20-50 kg P/ha. Very responsive to N. Ensure K adequate. For optimum growth Olsen soil P > 20.

Grazing/cutting

Graze at 4-5 leaf stage. Spell for 3 weeks in spring to 5 weeks in winter. Lax rotational grazing is advised but can tolerate continuous grazing; maintain below 25 cm for optimal quality. Do not graze if soil is waterlogged. Suitable for hay/silage.

Seed production

Seed is produced in New Zealand.

Ability to spread

Will regenerate from self-sown seed if sympathetically grazed in autumn; particularly in cattle pasture

Weed potential

Major pests

Army worm. Seedlings damaged by red legged earthmite and lucerne flea.

Major diseases

Head smut. Avoid by using seed dressed with fungicide.

Herbicide susceptibility

Glyphosate

Animal production

High; relatively high protein content

Palatability

Very good, including seedhead

Production potential

Good cool season vigour; relatively good quality in summer

Livestock disorders/toxicity

No toxins. For dependable mineral nutrition sow with legumes

Cultivars

Cultivar Seed source/Information
Ceres Atom PGG Seeds
Grasslands Matua Wrightson Seeds
Tango AusWest Seeds

Denotes that this variety is protected by Plant Breeder’s Rights Australia

Further information

Weblink:Future Dairy – Prarie grassNSWDPI – Prarie grass

Acknowledgements

DPIs, Seed companies

Author and date

K. Reed

March 2009

Rescue Prairie Grass Info: What Is Prairie Grass Used For?

For those looking for a good cover crop or livestock forage, Bromus prairie grass may be just what you need. Let’s learn more about what is prairie grass used for and how to plant prairie grass seed.

What is Prairie Grass?

Prairie bromegrass (Bromus willdenowii) is native to South America and has been in the United States for about 150 years. It’s also known as Bromus prairie grass, rescue grass and matua. Found mainly along roadsides, hay meadows, or in pastures, this grass is a cool-season bunch grass that matures at about 2 to 3 feet in height. Although this grass is a perennial, it acts like an annual in parts of the southeast United States.

Prairie Grass Identification

This grass appears much like orchardgrass but has densely covered basal leaf sheaths with light hairs and a shorter ligule. The leaves are rolled in the bud and a light green color. Prairie grass seed heads are produced all through the growing season.

What is Prairie Grass Used For?

The most common use of prairie grass is as a crop extender during cool times of the year, such as early spring and late fall. Because of its dense nutrient composition, it is a nutritious and very cost effective livestock forage. Cattle, horses, sheep, goats and various wildlife enjoy munching on this tasty grass, which is often included in pasture mixtures with fescue, Bermuda grass and orchardgrass.

Growing and Managing Prairie Grass

Prairie grass seed isn’t competitive, so it’s best planted with other cool-season grasses. It does, however, combine well with alfalfa.

Soil should be fertile and medium-coarse for best results. This grass will tolerate drought but not flooding and requires adequate drainage. Prairie grass likes high nitrogen and a soil pH around 6 to 7.

Care must be taken not to plant the seed too deeply or there will be germination problems. The best planting times in the southeast are between the middle of August and the end of September.

Grasses of the Tallgrass Prairie

A prairie is, first of all, a grassland. At least half of a natural prairie’s plants are grasses. The tallgrass prairie takes its name from two grasses that spectacularly dominate the late-summer prairie landscape: Big Bluestem and Indiangrass. These grasses can often reach eight feet or more in height. But today we’ll look at some species of grasses that are more petite but just as worthy of attention.

Most prairie grasses are hardy warm-season perennials, well adapted to the extremes of their climate — subzero winters and burning dry summers. Their root systems run deep into the soil to enable them to withstand drought and fire. Many of them are clumping plants. After the prairie is burned in the spring, you can see the black hummocks that will soon sprout new green leaves. By midsummer, the prairie has become a sea of grass.

Big Bluestem

This grass is a dominant species in the tallgrass prairie, so much that some prairies were called bluestem prairies, where the grass formed a dense sod that excluded other plants. However it also grows in clumps. It is usually the tallest grass in the prairie where it grows, sometimes to nine or ten feet in height. It takes its name from the blue-green color of its stiff, rounded stems. In the fall, the stems and foliage turn an attractive burgandy red.

The shape of the seedheads is quite distinctive, typically with three long spikes. This feature gives it the taxonomic name that means “turkey foot.” As a warm-season grass, like most on the prairie, it flowers in late summer.

Indiangrass

This grass is nearly the equal of Big Bluestem in height, and the two species often grow as companions, as they prefer the same growing conditions. The stems and leaves of Indiangrass are lighter than Blue Bluestem and actually even more blue in color. It has a clumping habit of growth and is less of a sod-forming grass than Big Bluestem. Both are warm-season grasses and flower at the same time, in late summer. This is when it is easiest to tell the two species apart, as the form of their seedheads is quite different. The yellow anthers of the Indiangrass flowers can be quite noticeable in a meadow full of this grass. Later in the fall, the color turns an attractive bronze.

Switchgrass

This grass is of medium height, about four to six feet. It is a common species in the tallgrass prairie, where it tends to form sod rather than clumps. The leaves are somewhat broader than those of the taller grasses. It flowers in late summer, along with Big Bluestem and Indiangrass. The flower heads are very slender and branching, with extremely small, inconspicuous flowers that have a delicate appearance.

Little Bluestem

This mid-height grass was once classified as a close relative of Big Bluestem, but is now considered to be in a different genus. It has a strong clumping habit with narrow leaves, growing to no more than four feet. It is a very vigorous grass that is common in both the tallgrass and shortgrass prairies and resists drought. The seed spikes are rather inconspicuous.

Prairie Dropseed

This short bunching grass is one of the dominant species of some tallgrass prairies, as well as the shortgrass region. It is an extremely attractive grass, forming a dense clump of very fine green leaves that have a fountain appearance. Many of the hummocks visible after a prairie burn are Pairie Dropseed. The seedheads rise above the clump on very slender stalks, so fine they are almost invisible.

Sideoats Grama

This sod-forming shortgrass is more abundant in the drier prairie regions than the tallgrass prairie, where it is often shaded out by taller plants. It is quite drought resistant. The grass itself is not particularly attractive, but it is notable for the way its flowers hang from one side of the stalk, and the seeds that remain for much of the fall after blooming in late summer, earlier than the common tallgrass species.

Canada Wild Rye

While the most important grass species in the tallgrass prairie are warm-season grasses that bloom in late summer, there are also cool-season varieties. This medium-height grass is more common to disturbed sites than well-established prairies. Its most prominent feature are its gracefully nodding seed spikes, which resemble the cultivated grain, to which it is not closely related.

Prairie Brome

A cool-season grass, one of the earliest to bloom on the prairie. While native to the northern tallgrass region, it is not one of the most common prarie species, and not very noticeable.

Prairie Cord Grass

This coarse, warm-season grass colonizes wet and marshy areas where the more common prairie grasses do not thrive. In such conditions, it forms a very dense sod that excludes other plants. The leaves are very tough with serrated edges that can cut the skin.

Blue Joint Grass

Another species that colonizes areas of moist soil, forming dense clumps. The leaf blades are long and fine. This is a cool-season grass that blooms in early summer.

Gardeners interested in a prairie restoration project or a home pairie garden should definitely consider some of these native species. There are prairie grasses of all sizes, suitable for a variety of growing conditions. Many of them are attractive ornamental grasses. A growing number of vendors are offering plugs that will help your grasses get off to a good start at recreating a prairie in your own garden.

References: Kirt, Russell R., Prairie Plants of the Midwest. Stipes Publishing LLC, Champaign, IL, 1995

Ladd, Doug and Oberle, Frank, Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers. Morris Book Publishing LLC, Guilford, CT, 2005

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 15, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

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