Summary: In a dry summer climate like northern California's, perennial grasses grow far more forage than annuals, but are hard to establish. Here's one way to do it.
Why establish perennial grasses in place of the predominantly Mediterranean annual grass now growing in the valleys and hills of northern California rangelands? Perennial grasses:
There is no doubt that perennial grasses are hard to establish and to manage in western Tehama County, a brittle area of northern California's Central Valley, so moving to a perennial grass regime is not for the faint of heart! Be prepared for a very fast learning curve if you have decided to develop a perennial grassland. (Probably this area was predominantly native perennials before the European influence. The native perennials have dissipated over the past 200 years or so due to our management practices, and the Mediterranean annuals have become predominant).
There is a continuum of methods in establishing or bringing back perennial grasses. The method you choose will depend on soil type, equipment and capital available, how rapidly you want to get perennials established, and whether you are willing to modify grazing practices to promote perennial growth. It's very important that you understand the physiology of the growth of perennials vs. annual grasses. If you presently have annuals, and continue to manage the same as you've done in the past, you will have only annuals in the future, even if you establish a beautiful stand of perennial grasses to encourage perennial growth.
Contact your local NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] office for information on how perennial grasses grow, and how to manage your grazing to maintain and/or promote perennials.
It is essential that you use planned grazing to promote or retain perennials. By moving livestock from one field or paddock as often as possible to another, you are allowing for regrowth of the perennial plants. Over a period of years, using planned grazing, you will slowly establish perennials into your grassland environment.
The next move toward perennials is to introduce perennial grass seed casually into your grassland. To get the best results with this method, you should drop your seeds into a crop seedbed of some kind -- often prepared by animals (i.e., pig rooting is an excellent place to introduce some perennial grass seed.) Other possibilities are animal impact areas, such as animal rolling areas, bull fighting or pawing areas, hay feeding areas, etc. (Use your imagination and always carry a pound or so of your favorite perennial seed mix with you when you're out on your land repairing fence, checking livestock, or just enjoying your grassland.) Planned grazing is essential with all these methods.
The next step in establishing perennial grasses would be to use a spring tooth, or other similar tool, and go over the soil several times during a 12-month period, whenever the soil moisture conditions are right. The purpose of this technique is to germinate as much annual grasses and forbs seeds as possible. Broadcast your perennial grass mix (maybe with some annual clovers), into your seedbed in the fall or early spring. Do not cover the seed. Let the rains do it. Most perennial grass and legume seed should not be planted more than 1/4" (6 mm) deep in our western Tehama County soils.
If you want to have the potential of an excellent perennial grass stand, here's the Cadillac of establishment procedures. (Of course Cadillacs have been known to break down too, so success will depend on the year, timing of rains, amount of rain, etc. You may not be completely successful, but remember I didn't say it was easy to establish perennial grasses!)
Here are the general steps:
These procedures or methods are ones which I have used successfully. There are many other combinations of processes that would probably work. Here are some fundamentals:
Good luck in your move toward a perennial grassland!
Copyright © 2002 Bill Burrows. First presented at Burrows Ranch Stewardship Day, 4 May 2002, Red Bluff, California, U.S.A.
Presented 4 May 2002