Buffalo Ice Cream
As intriguing as the name sounds, this post is not about a new flavor offering at Braums. It’s about an amazing native plant, which is for buffalo what ice cream is for many people. It’s called eastern gamagrass, Tripsacum dactyloides. This little-known tallgrass holds a big place in eastern Oklahoma’s history, and it has the potential to help people in our part of the world face some major challenges that are looming on our horizon.
A while back, I got to read the journal of Thomas Nuttall, a naturalist, who traveled around southeastern Oklahoma back in 1819 - that was a little more than ten years before the start of the Choctaw Trail of Tears. Through the pages of Nuttall’s journal, it was interesting to see how much of southeastern Oklahoma used to be covered in prairies, and how much of an impact bison had on the landscape here. It was a little gratifying to come across the names of many of the same prairie plants that we have growing here on the farm today, but there was a glaring exception. 200 years ago, eastern gamagrass was a dominant ground cover in this region, but I cannot name a single place where it is growing in our county today. Being their “ice cream”, grazing animals will eat eastern gamagrass before they eat anything else. As Oklahoma’s bison herds were destroyed, as the land was fenced off, and as cattle were put into pastures for continuous grazing, they grazed what was the best forage grass for this part of the country into oblivion.
Paradoxically, one of the biggest challenges that we face in raising our bison at the Nan Awaya Farmstead is that, as a result of our region's high average temperature and often ample rainfall, the grass just grows too fast here. Quickly growing grass doesn’t exactly sound like a problem for livestock-raising until you consider that protein is a limiting factor in animal performance, and that grass that has grown rapidly usually has a low protein content. On many Oklahoma ranges, Wichita National Wildlife Refuge for example, bison heifers cope with low protein in their forage by waiting until age 3 to breed. On these ranges, mature bison cows will often calf about every other year. Compare this with up north where cooler growing conditions lead to higher protein content in the grass. There, healthy bison breed at age 2 and have a calf nearly every year thereafter. The relatively low protein content of grass on southern ranges also has an impact on animal size. On average, Oklahoma bison are about 1/3 smaller than animals from the Northern Plains. Besides making our animals smaller and limiting calf production, low protein content also hits us as we prepare meat animals for slaughter. We would love to be able to finish them on 100% pasture grass, but with the low protein in our grass, we currently have no choice but to mix some free choice grain into their diet during the weeks before slaughter in order to produce meat with the flavor that people expect. Our challenges with low protein in the grass are only going to get worse.
As a result of humanity’s actions, our planet is warming. Samples of grass collected in southern Kansas in the mid-1800s, contain about the same level of protein that grass in South Dakota contains today. A recent report by 13 federal agencies indicates that by the time Amy and I begin drawing social security, Oklahoma is likely to be averaging about 50 days of 100+ degrees each year. On top of that, with the higher prevailing temperatures, the air is going hold more moisture, leading to worse droughts as well as worse floods. We’re already seeing the beginnings of this. How do we start preparing our land today to meet the challenging conditions of the future?
One part of the answer might just come back to buffalo ice cream. There’s a reason that buffalo and other grazers love to eat eastern gamagrass. A distant relative of corn, this prolific native grass has a special ability to produce high protein forage in a hot, humid climate. On unamended soils, across diverse soil types, the June protein content of eastern gamagrass averages about 12.5%, and it can go much higher. That is superior to the “improved” bahia / Bermuda pastures on our farm, which average less than 9% crude protein in June. Eastern gamagrass grows rapidly up to about 7ft tall, with each plant providing a tremendous amount of lush foliage for animals to eat. Underground, it’s 8-ft deep roots make it extremely resistant to drought, while also protecting the soils from eroding away in heavy rains.
These characteristics seem to make this grass particularly well suited to the conditions of the future. Reintroducing a native plant that is able to produce high protein content and sustained animal gains in warm temperatures could effectively set the clock of climate change / forage protein drop back a few decades on our farm. Using a drought-resistant forage to protect our lowland soils from erosion, nutrient loss, and the loss of organic matter, would help bolster our operation against future dry spells and floods. Finally, having such a tall grass would help insulate our soils, keeping them cool and moist enough to support continued forage growth even on the 100+ degree days that are coming. Eastern gamagrass was once a keystone species of eastern Oklahoma. Just like restoring the bison, restoring this grass to the landscape will probably have benefits that go far beyond the plant itself.
Reintroducing eastern gamagrass back onto a pasture requires a real commitment for several reasons. First, this plant is not a prolific germinator. The seeds do best if they are cold-stratified. This means keeping them in a moist, cold environment for 8-10 weeks previous to planting. Even after this treatment, the seeds may have a lower germination rate than non-native grasses. Second, like other native tallgrasses, eastern gamagrass establishes slowly. After germination, most of the first year of growth is put into building the massive root system that will sustain the plant. This means that in its first year it does not compete well with faster-growing plants and cannot be grazed. Third, mature eastern gamagrass plants cannot tolerate heavy, repeated grazing, and they should not be grazed down lower than 10 inches. This requires a rotational grazing system - like what we already have.
In the past, we’ve tried reintroducing eastern gamagrass to our farm’s landscape in several ways with very limited success. In the effort to speed the process of restoring the farm’s native landscape, one of our plans for this winter has been to set up a grow light and start germinating seeds for the species of native plants that our land has the greatest need of. In the spring, after they’ve sprouted and grown a bit, we’ll put the young plants out in our pastures. Doing this would mean a real time investment, so to try it out, we’ve purchased some live plants from our friends at Native American Seed that are species we've had difficulty seeding directly into the soil. These include big bluestem, Maxmillian sunflower, and -you guessed it- eastern gamagrass most especially. After planting in our pastures, we’ll water them and fence them off from grazing until they get established. In the process, we’ll gain some familiarity with these species of plants, and then see how it goes for there. If it goes well, we’ll plant 500 more eastern gamagrass plants this spring and start working to restore this plant of the past, and of the future, to a small part of its native range. When the virus subsides, come out and see it!