There are some native varieties of grass that are believed to have been prevalent in Tennessee pastures here many years ago. Those grasses were a heartier variety that survived through hot, dry summers, thereby providing forage for domesticated herds longer than grasses planted for pasture on modern farms.
"We're going to reseed about 100 acres this fall," Kevin Thompson, director of the combined University of Tennessee Dairy Research and Education Centers here and at Spring Hill, said last week.
There are 615 acres at the UT center here. Some of it's been in crops. Some must continue for barns, the milking parlor, pens, roads and a brick farmhouse used for center offices.
"To establish our forage study, we took land that is not traditionally used for forage," Thompson said.
The idea is to keep the cows on natural grown grasses instead of relying on hay, he said. That way dairy farmers, and others with pasture for their herds, can increase the efficiency of production without adding livestock feed that must be purchased.
Thompson was asked Thursday about the removal of the cows on Aug. 22. He replied that the center here "is not going to be closed down," so that fear could be dispelled. It had been a concern more than a year ago when the state's budget was being assembled for the fiscal year that ended on June 30. The budget cutting idea last year was to combine the herds by moving the Jerseys to Spring Hill where Holsteins are the subject of that research center. That plan was set aside when federal stimulus money was made available. At about the same time, one director was appointed to oversee operations of the research and education centers here and in Spring Hill.
"One of my main objectives, when I was appointed to manage both centers, was to continue research and increase it," Thompson said while discussing the experiment that's just starting here. "This is an example of that."
"Another interest that's prevalent, and something we'll see become more and more important, is higher food prices," he said. Lowering farmers' costs when feeding their herds is something the experiment is to address.
"We've gotten primary investigators and PhD researchers from Knoxville working on this," Thompson said, naming Dr. Pat Keyser, Shawn Hawkins, Dr. John Waller and Neal Schrick. They are specialists in various disciplines, he said. Those include agronomy, engineering, forages, forestry and wildlife. Data from the experiment is to be collected here and sent to the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus.
One goal of the experiment is to see how many animals can be sustained per acre, an aspect of farm life that's to include wildlife. The idea is to take into account the people who want to maintain the wildlife populations. A research paper on this and other conclusions from the studies is to be published.
"What's so exciting to me is that it is multi faceted," the centers director said. "There is some theory that this kind of forage will increase wildlife."
"We have to temporarily make room so we can begin preparation of the pastures," Thompson said, offering another explanation on why 13.33 percent of the cows had to be moved to Spring Hill. "Obviously, you can't have cows in a pasture that's being prepared."
Since the nature of pasture and other types of lands are being changed starting this year, Thompson pointed out that "It's going to be a long term temporary" transfer of the 20 cows.
Once the experiment pastures are established, the UT study will look to see if the different forage can increase production efficiency. They will try to keep the cows on natural grown grasses on the farm instead of feeding them hay later in the year.
"We want to remove the existing specialized forage that's there and replace it with native warm season grasses," Thompson said. "It's going to be a combination of a blue stem, Indian grass and little blue stem grasses."
Those grasses grow naturally on the prairie out west.
"There's great theory that those grasses had been prevalent here," Thompson said. "This is ... to enhance the pasture to lengthen the grazing season; fill the gap during June, July, August when that time has hot weather with less rainfall.
"These grasses require less rain and nitrogen."
The study starting here is similar to a project in Spring Hill with switch grass, one of the basic components for bio diesel fuel.
"We want to see how it would fit into a dairy scenario," Thompson said.
Other studies are possible, he said, but for now the specialists from UT are focusing on dairy pasture and related productivity, he said. One possible other experiment might have a specialist focus on animal comfort and behavior. That's important because contented cows make better milk, just as workers do better when they're in their comfort zone.