WHAT IS IT?
Eastern gamagrass is a warm-season perennial bunch grass. Early records, dating back to the 1800's, extol the virtues of gamagrass as a drought-tolerant, highly productive, and nutritious native rangeland species. Growing 3 to 8 feet tall, this distant relative of corn can live as long as 70 years.
This wonder grass has been called the "Queen of the Grasses" because of its high yields and rapid growth. It has recently gained renewed interest, not only because of it value as a forage crop, but also because of its ability to penetrate acid, compact, marginal soils and to survive both flooding and drought. In Maryland, ARS and other scientists are also testing its potential as an erosion and water pollution fighter.
WHAT IS ITS SECRET FOR ADAPTATION?
The secret is that gamagrass has coarse, deep growing roots that enable it to penetrate dense soil layers. The roots have aerenchyma tissue (with air passages) that allows gamagrass to grow under waterlogged conditions. Channels formed by these roots may help the establishment of subsequent crops that are grown, such as corn and soybean.
WHO'S TESTING EASTERN GAMAGRASS IN MARYLAND--AND WHY?
ARS is working with USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Maryland Cooperative Extension, and the University of Maryland to explore several possible uses of eastern gamagrass. These studies are being conducted on an USDA "Fund for Rural America" grant, as a continuation of studies begun by BARC in 1991.
- Location 1: Gamagrass plots set up by ARS scientist Charles Foy on acid, compact soils in 1996 near North Farm Road. In 2 years, it formed a good stand with roots penetrating down to 5 to 6 feet. Forage yields in 1997 and 1998 were high despite severe droughts.
- Location 2: Greenhouse studies on eastern gamagrass are being conducted at BARC to determine its ability to tolerate adverse soil conditions.
- Location 3: Gamagrass hedges have been established for erosion control on the South Farm. They are growing between alternating strips of corn and soybean.
- Location 4: Buffer strips between the BARC Composting Facility and Beaver Dam Creek are being established.
- Location 5: USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service's National Plant Materials Center at BARC has several plantings of gamagrass. These include: a tetraploid planting of Beltsville origin being evaluated by the Plant Material Center in Big Flats, New York; a planting of the cultivar `Pete'; and a native planting of eastern gamagrass in the upper plum field.
- Location 6: Buffer strips between a corn field and wetland and stream. This location is part of a precision agriculture field study area, titled Optimizing Production Inputs for Economic and Environmental Enhancement (OPE3), along Soil Conservation Road.
Location 7: There is a natural stand of gamagrass by a pond along Soil Conservation Road, about a mile south of the precision agriculture site.
ARE THERE OTHER TEST LOCATIONS IN MARYLAND?
Field plots are being established in several counties in Maryland to evaluate forage production of eastern gamagrass in comparison with other warm-season grasses.
- Improving marginal soils: Eastern gamagrass can be a tool for improving soil quality since it sends its roots into marginal soils having high acidity, compaction, and other restrictive properties, possibly paving a way for less tolerant crops.
- Buffer strips and stiff grass hedges: Grass buffer strips filter out excess fertilizer, pesticides, bacteria, other pathogens and excess heavy metals, from surface runoff. Stiff grass hedges are a type of buffer strip for sloping land. They trap eroding soil by slowing down runoff from rain.
- Forage crop: Gamagrass is more productive, palatable and nutritious than other native perennial warm-season grasses. It has a low lignin content that makes it highly digestible, and a high-protein content (10-15%). It grows in early spring and produces high yields in summer when cool-season grasses are dormant. It is usually one of the first species eliminated by continuous heavy grazing. It may be used as an alternative to annual silage crops, or as pasture forage where intensive rotational grazing is well managed.
DOES IT HAVE OTHER USES?
- Wildlife habitat: Since the grass grows in clumps up to 3 feet in diameter, the spaces between clumps provide excellent cover for ground nesters such as quail, doves, and rabbits. The quail population in the East has declined because of the loss of such ground cover.
- Flour and oil: Gamagrass seed seems to have potential for high-fiber flour for human consumption. Also, in preliminary nutritional studies, ARS scientists found the seed, with its abundant stores of unsaturated fatty acids, had more than half again as much vegetable oil as corn. The overall protein content of gamagrass grain is about three times that of corn and twice that of whole wheat. Once a satisfactory method is developed to remove the hull surrounding the seed, gamagrass could be processed for flour or oil with currently available technology.
WHAT CULTIVARS ARE AVAILABLE?
There are presently two commercially available cultivars of eastern gamagrass: `Pete' and `Iuka'.
WHERE DOES IT GROW?
Eastern gamagrass performs well from southern Nebraska to Texas and eastward to the Atlantic. Although it occurs naturally in many parts of the country, it is not as widespread as in the days of the early settlers, when it flourished on the prairies and was grazed by bison.
- Donald T. Krizek
- USDA Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory
- Phone: (301) 504-5324 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Jerry C. Ritchie
- USDA Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory
- Phone: (301) 504-8717 e-mail: email@example.com
ARS scientists Charles Foy and Donald Krizek
examine Eastern gamagrass established in 1996
on acid, compact soil on BARC's North Farm.
United States Department of Agriculture
Agricultural Research Service, March 1999