Native grasses have unique characteristics and high forage potentials for Tennessee cattle

Cattle on switchgrass at the Highland Rim AgResearch and Education Center

Switchgrass is among the five native grasses that have excellent potential for use as a forage. These cattle are grazing switchgrass at the Highland Rim AgResearch and Education Center. Photo by P. Keyser, courtesy UTIA.

In recent years, increased attention has been paid to a group of grasses referred to as “native warm-season grasses” or NWSG.  But what exactly are these grasses?

Patrick Keyser, University of Tennessee professor and director of the Center for Native Grasslands Management, says these grasses are simply forages that grow naturally in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. “They were not introduced from other parts of the world,” he said. “These tall, bunch grasses are adapted to grow well during our summer.” While some site preparation was best performed late last year, these grasses can be seeded in the spring after soil temperatures warm.

Keyser says that controlling weeds before planting is critical.

While there are many species of such grasses, Keyser says five of them have excellent potential as forages:

Switchgrass — Because of its role in bioenergy, switchgrass may be the most familiar of these grasses. Switchgrass is very productive, is very drought tolerant, and can grow on particularly wet sites. There are two basic types of switchgrass – upland and lowland, which is considerably taller. In terms of forage quality, switchgrass can become stemmy, especially the lowland varieties, but it is readily grazed by cattle and produces summer gains of 1.5 – 2.0 lb/day on steers.

Big bluestem — Once the dominant species of the once vast tall grass prairies, big bluestem is still common on native ranges and is probably the most preferred forage by cattle among the natives. It does not produce quite as much tonnage as switchgrass, but is less stemmy and produces better gains (2.0 – 2.6 lb/day).  Big bluestem can grow on a wide variety of sites, but does not do as well on wet sites as switchgrass.

Little bluestem — A smaller relative of big bluestem, little bluestem produces the least amount of forage of the five species mentioned in this article. However, it has the advantage of doing well on particularly poor sites and, compared to other NWSG, is easily established. It is often planted in mixtures with big bluestem. Despite its similarity to broomsedge, it is a very good forage that cattle readily consume.

Indiangrass — Indiangrass commonly grows with both big and little bluestem on native rangeland.  Compared to big bluestem, it is somewhat more productive, is slightly stemmier, and is less tolerant of wet sites. It can grow on a wide variety of soils, being intermediate between big and little bluestem in terms of its tolerance of poor soils. Indiangrass is an excellent forage, being only slightly less preferred than big bluestem. Like little bluestem, it is one of the easier NWSG to establish.

Eastern gamagrass — This grass is the least similar to the other NWSG described above. In terms of tonnage, it is comparable to switchgrass. In terms of site requirements, it can grow on sites as wet as switchgrass, but may not do as well on thinner, poorer soils as the other NWSG. Also, unlike the other NWSG, it is very responsive to nitrogen. Although readily consumed by cattle, Eastern gamagrass generally does not have the high gains of the other species. Nevertheless, it is highly drought tolerant, can carry very high stocking, and sustains production in late summer better than the others. It is also the earliest to grow in the spring. It can be seeded after soil temperatures reach about 60 degrees, which is typically early to mid April.

“Regardless of which NWSG you choose, native grasses can all provide a low-input summer forage option that will substantially improve the drought-tolerance of your overall forage program,” said Keyser.

For more information, visit the UT Extension publications website and enter the term “native warm-season grass” into the search engine:

You may also contact your local county UT Extension agent or visit the website for the Center for Native Grasslands Management:

UT Extension provides a gateway to the University of Tennessee as the outreach unit of the UT Institute of Agriculture. With an office in every Tennessee county, UT Extension delivers educational programs and research-based information to citizens throughout the state. In cooperation with Tennessee State University, UT Extension works with farmers, families, youth and communities to improve lives by addressing problems and issues at the local, state and national levels.



Dr. Patrick Keyser, UT Center for Native Grasslands Management, 865-974-7346,


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