MWblog
Establishing Switchgrass
Switchgrass can be a Good Option
Posted by Bill Winke on 10.12.11

Switchgrass also creates a screen when going to and from your tree stands.This week, the blog comes to us from Ryan Fischer.  Ryan is an important member of our Midwest Whitetail pro staff.  When not hunting, he enjoys a career as a habitat specialist.  Prairie establishment is one of the strengths of the company Ryan works for.  That means they plant and maintain a lot of switchgrass all across Wisconsin. 

So please enjoy Ryan's blog on how to establish switchgrass in northern climes.  Ryan works in Wisconsin, but the advice is good for other parts of the Upper Midwest, as well.  The following is from Ryan Fischer.

"Here is my two cents on Switch Grass.  Great cover for sanctuaries and bedding cover for deer.  Also can be used as buffer for access to stand sites, etc.  I tend to push more folks to more diverse native seedings with multiple native grasses and forbs in it over the mono-typical stands of Switch. 

SELECTING THE RIGHT SEED

Cave In Rock switgrass grows tall and is very hardy and weather resistant but is not native to some parts of the Upper Midwest.  It may still do well, just know it is a non-native genotype.As far as the best variety to buy for Central WI and other parts of the Upper Midwest, I would recommend that you purchase quality seed from a certified seed vendor that can provide you with local genotypes of seed within 250 mile radius of the planting site.  There are many varieties of switchgrass or Panicum virgatum.  Don’t go cheap on the seed and buy in PLS, Pure Live Seed.  Check for accurate germination testing results.  Most vendors will provide all of this info on a seed tag.  There are lots of co-ops and seed vendors out there selling non-local genotype seed species from the West and South at low PLS rate and at much lower prices.  Don’t be fooled.
 
You may run into dwarf varieties or hear talk about Cave In Rock Switch Grass.  Cave in Rock is not local to WI, but can be grown if desired. Much hardier and taller species but beware that you are planting a non-native genotype.

PLANTING DATES AND SITE PREP

Planting dates can vary across the Midwest but there are two optimal times to plant in WI.  Fall and/or Spring/Summer.  Planting dates must coincide with correct site preparation of the planting area.

Broadcasting is a good way to establish switchgrass when done at the right time.  You need to create a good, weed-free seed bed.Site preparation may consist of planting into a harvested corn or bean stubble or a complete conversion from cool season grasses to warm season grasses.  Both can be done effectively if planned for appropriately.  I have seen best results with Fall/Winter broadcasting into soybean stubble or no-till drilling into corn or bean stubble in Spring.  RR, Round Up Ready, crops are a great way to get the site cleaned up for a native grass planting.  If you could plan accordingly I would plant RR corn one year, followed up by RR soybeans the second year and harvest or let the deer eat off and broadcast the seed that Fall or Winter onto the site.  This same scenario can be done and planted in the Spring with a no-till drill as well. 

Crops would need to be harvested off, and I would then recommend a broad spectrum chemical application of Glyphosate/2-4D to set back any unwanted weeds, wait a few weeks and drill into the crop stubble.  If the site is a cool season grass conversion, best case scenario would be to conduct a prescribed burn on the site to remove the fuel loading.  This could be done in Fall or Spring, which then needs to be followed up by multiple chemical applications to set back the cool season grasses that will return.  I recommend that the site be sprayed for one full growing season cycle.  Best case scenario would be early Fall spraying, early Spring spraying, summer spraying, plant.  Some folks will spray once, some 5 times.

METHODS FOR PLANTING

I like to broadcast seed on top of a fresh layer of snow if possible or no-till drill in the Spring with a native grass drill that can calibrate the seed rates needs as well as not plant too deep.  I recommend planting rates anywhere from 6-12 lbs for switchgrass depending on soil types and density desire.  Planting depths should be around ¼” or so if drilled. Be careful as to not plant too deep.  A firm seed bed is recommended if possible. 

Switchgrass is a viable option to creating woody cover in some locations.I have seen some success with working up the soil and broadcasting or packing in the spring, but tend to see more weeds in this type of planting.   Fall planting dates no sooner than October 15th and could drill until mid November or broadcast until March if conditions permit. Spring planting dates, depending on site preparation conditions, would be anywhere from April 15th until June 30th.  Try to time the planting before a rain event if possible.  If bare soil conditions permit, a cover crop (such as oats) could be planted with the switch as well, if desired.

MAINTAINING YOUR SWITCHGRASS PLANTING

Site preparation and post maintenance may be more important to the success of switch grass than the actual planting itself.   Switch grass can come up on year one, but I recommend that you mow most sites 2-3 times for the first two years.  The mowings are critical for the success of the planting.  Mow lower than 8” once weeds get 12-18” tall. The roots systems of the plants will be growing the first few years and the mowing will set back any unwanted annual weeds and allow for sunlight to reach the native seedlings. A prescribed burn on the site on year 3-5 would be recommended as well if fuel loading is sufficient. 

Probably went too long on this stuff, but this is how I would recommend planting any native grass in a nutshell.
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Thanks Ryan we appreciate your experience and expertise.