A grass for all seasons Experiment: Beltsville researchers find that a plant that once fed bison flourishes despite drought and might serve as a buffer for the bay.

September 13, 1997|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A prairie grass that once sustained the bison and nearly disappeared when the American West was settled is making a comeback in a remote field at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.

Researchers Charles Foy and Donald Krizek used this summer's dry spell to prove that eastern gamagrass -- a wild grass eaten nearly to extinction by settlers' cattle in the 1800s -- could help farmers deal with droughts.

Foy, a College Park resident, said the Beltsville center had its worst drought in 31 years this summer, with only an inch of rain between July 1 and Aug. 15, the key growing time for the grass.

But the grass, planted in April on a 1-acre plot on Beltsville's

South Farm, flourished.

"Look at this. This corn up here is shot, the soybeans over here are dead, and this, this is doing really well," said Foy, a soil scientist, as he walked through the gamagrass on the South Farm.

The grass also resists cold weather and insects, grows well in inhospitable soils and sends its roots deep into the earth so that it can survive blistering heat and drought.

The real advantage, the researchers said, is that it grows in just about any soil.

"This plant can be used to reclaim marginal land that's not being used for anything," said Foy.

Not bad for a crop that almost disappeared in the 1800s.

The grass -- which grows in thick clumps and looks like crab grass -- was a wild, plentiful food for the herds of bison that roamed the West until the 1860s.

But the ranchers and farmers who began to settle the Plains in large numbers about 150 years ago brought in cattle with very different feeding habits.

The nomadic bison roamed the Plains, eating a top layer of the grass and moving on, which allowed the stalks to rejuvenate. But the cattle ate the grass right down to its roots, killing it off. The grass needs to grow about 6 inches above the ground to gather sunlight, Foy said.

"It won't stand the close grazing. That's what killed it," Foy said.

The grass was rediscovered in 1980, when a farmer raising bison in Missouri discovered a small patch of it thriving in the midst of a drought that had killed off the other grasses he had planted to feed his animals.

Krizek, 66, of Silver Spring said word about the grass has been spreading slowly among farmers and researchers ever since.

Foy said the grass could be used by Maryland farmers as a buffer crop to reduce runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. It also could be feed for cattle, as long as the cows are rotated among the fields where it grows to prevent them from eating it down to its roots and killing it.

Krizek said state officials have pledged to create buffer strips along 600 miles of waterfront farmland by 2010 to prevent runoff into the bay.

Eastern gamagrass, with its deep roots, could help state officials meet that requirement, he said.

Foy and Krizek also are studying the grass to determine why it is so effective in withstanding heat and drought.

They think the reason is that the grass has air-filled root passages called aerenchyma (pronounced air-ENK-a-ma) that dTC penetrate hard, clay soils as deep as 7 feet and draw water from it.

Most grasses don't have roots with such an ability to penetrate hard soils, they say.

Foy said the deep roots also mean the grass will prevent soil erosion, because the roots establish a firm hold in the earth and stay put.

The experimental plantings at Beltsville this summer were not the first tests conducted on eastern gamagrass, but they confirmed earlier scientific studies that documented the grass' characteristics, Krizek said.

The important thing now, he said, is to get the message out about its potential.

"Most farmers are still not up to speed on it, but it could be a crop that really takes off," Krizek said.

Pub Date: 9/13/97

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