Planning a Switchgrass Planting
By Tom Peplinski
A switchgrass planting (warm season grass) is the fastest way I know of to create a visual barrier or security cover. And unlike other plantings, it is long lasting. A switchgrass planting can last for many years, is relatively maintenance free once established, and is fairly inexpensive to establish. For these reasons, switchgrass plantings are my choice if I need to establish cover or create visual barriers for deer hunting.
A visual barrier can be very effective when planning out entrance and exit routes. In many cases, the best routes require us to walk open ground, along fence lines, or through otherwise clear areas that allow deer to bust us coming and going to our stands. Visual barriers can also be used when trying to hide our food sources so that deer feel more comfortable using them. In some cases, a thick stand of tall grasses can help hide us when we leave after an evening hunt over a food plot. These are all examples of when visual barriers help us more effectively hunt our farms, and hides our access to them.
When creating a strip of switchgrass as a visual barrier, keep in mind that this planting is not meant to hold deer, but to screen deer so that it is visually impossible to see through the planting. For this reason, visual barrier plantings should be thicker than security cover plantings, and wide enough that deer can’t see through. This means, using the upper end of seeding rates and making barriers wide enough. For switchgrass plantings, the seeding rate I use is 5-10 pounds per acre. This means that for a barrier planting, I’ll use 10 pounds per acre, and make my screen at least 15 feet wide. This will make the planting thick and wide enough that deer won’t see through it.
One more reason to create a visual barrier is to provide lower levels of social stress at food plot areas. Imagine a two-acre food plot. This one food plot can attract a number of deer, but can and will attract more deer if the plot is separated in two by a visual barrier splitting it in half. This one little trick allows the deer using the plot a little less stress by separating deer from different family groups. This isn’t necessarily something you have to do, but can come in handy if you only have one food plot area that you want to feed as many deer as you can in that one area. By splitting a bigger plot into two, with a visual barrier between them, will a lot of times allow more deer to feed in that same area with less stress.
Along with creating visual barriers, tall grasses can be used as a great base cover in creating bedding areas. Huge swaths of switchgrass alone do not make for great bedding cover. But, strips, pockets, or larger plantings with diversity pockets and strips of non-grass habitat makes for some great bedding and security cover. In cases where larger acreages of switchgrass are planted, make sure to create pockets or strips within those plantings where non-grass type vegetation is allowed to grow…think woody browse, briars, broadleaf weeds, etc.
When I say base cover, what I’m referring to is a cover that will provide a base of cover providing protection from the wind, can hide animals from predators (mainly hunters), and can isolate animals from each other when bedded (otherwise referred to as lowering social stress). A base cover can be a tall switchgrass planting, pine or cedar thicket, and in some cases a larger field of standing corn. The point is, the base cover is what provides the security and hiding properties for deer. However, a base cover alone doesn’t make for great bedding habitat. In the case of a switchgrass planting, the tall grasses provide protection from the elements and hide deer from predators. That’s what makes switchgrass great for bedding cover, and the fact that it can be established in one growing season. But, don’t forget to add diversity within larger plantings if you want the switchgrass to become a preferred bedding area.
The number one, without a doubt, most important consideration when preparing for planting switchgrass is to eliminate weed competition. Warm season grasses are very slow to develop, especially in their first seedling year. If weeds grow and take over a planting, the warm season grasses will never establish and the planting will be lost. This makes weed control the number one goal the first year of establishment. For this reason, a great way to establish switchgrass is by starting a full year ahead of time so that you can create a totally weed free seed bed going into the year you want to plant switchgrass. Planting into soybean stubble, corn stubble, or other weed free areas works great. When planting into pasture ground, canary grass, or other areas that are loaded with weeds, you should consider holding off until next year so that you can take this entire coming summer and eliminate weed competition. A great way to do this is with a spring fire, then alternating between spraying with glyphosate and tillage. Or, planting herbicide tolerant soybeans where you want to plant switchgrass next year, so that you can eliminate weeds this year.
The year of planting, let’s say this spring, you’ll want to let the first batch of cold season weeds to come up. Then, either through tillage or herbicide treatment, you’ll want to terminate those weeds. This is usually around early to mid-April. If using herbicides, combining glyphosate and 2,4-D will kill most if not all weeds. Then, allow some time for more weeds to emerge…usually in another 2-4 weeks. Around mid-May, tillage or herbicide treatment can/should be used once again if more weeds come into the area. If you are seeing a lot of grass weeds, herbicide treatment is preferred over tillage as the herbicide will kill the growing plant and any roots and rhizomes. Also, if using herbicides, you should wait 10 days after treatment before preparing a seed bed through tillage.
Now…we’ve arrived somewhere in mid-May and are ready to plant. Light tillage is needed to loosen the top of your bed; but not heavy tillage. Then, simply broadcast 5 pounds per acre of switchgrass seed for bedding cover, 10 pounds for screening. Then, lightly drag in the seed. I like to use a section of hog panel for my drag, or a piece of woven fence…something light but enough to fluff the dirt and bury the seed. In sandier ground, you can now pack the seed, but I personally don’t ever pack small seeds like switchgrass. Why? Because in more clay soils, packed seed that gets heavy rain will crust over. Very small seedlings (like grass) have a hard time breaking through crusted soils. For me, it’s light tillage, spread the seed, then light dragging. That’s it!
There’s one final step to be made at planting. Immediately after planting, I will spray the ground with a low rate of atrazine. For those of us that do not have a license to spray atrazine, simazine works almost just as well. Use the lowest labeled rate. This will help your switchgrass planting get established before weeds come in and take over.
During the growing season, if everything was done correctly up to this point, you shouldn’t have to do anything but watch your planting grow. The first year, switchgrass will emerge in June but grow very slowly until late July when it will really start to take off. Be patient. If you see a ton of broadleaf or non-switchgrass weeds, you can mow high just enough to clip the tops of the weeds off. But don’t overdo it. Many first-year plantings have been lost by impatient growers than by the weeds themselves.
Switchgrass is a great and fast way to create visual barriers for better hunting and for more isolation that deer like. It can also be used as a thick base of cover when trying to create bedding on your hunting grounds. Creating a weed free seed bed is key to establishing switchgrass, and once established, a stand of switchgrass can last a hunter many years.