In Texas cattle country, Charles Lancaster planted crops on his 600-acre ranch where the soil allowed, growing oats and occasionally milo near the banks of Lucy Creek. Big green clumps of a hearty-looking grass, however, kept edging into his fields.
“We didn’t know what it was,” he says. “It was on the creek bank but it spread back into the field pretty quick. I fought it all of the time. That’s what caught my eye.”
During the next 13 years, that grass kept the attention of Lancaster, 83, who turned an interest in a mostly ignored native Texas grass into a seed business responsible for creating plots from Texas to North Carolina.
Known as Eastern gamagrass, the plant rarely appeared in large natural stands, according to a University of Missouri Extension report from 1999, about the time the grass caught Lancaster’s eye.
Early settlers considered the grass a high-quality forage crop, but grazing by livestock and the planting of grain crops made it scarce. The grass was considered to have the potential to provide high-quality forage throughout the summer grazing season and to provide a substitute for corn silage.
Meanwhile, Lancaster remained curious and a chance conversation gave him a hint that his ranch might have a stand of a plant nicknamed “the ice cream of grasses” for its appeal to grazing animals.
“I was talking to the soil conservation people, because I’ve always been interested in grasses. One of the boys in the office had a picture of this Eastern gamagrass from up in the Midwest somewhere. He says, ‘Boy wouldn’t you like to have 40 or 50 acres of that on your place?’ and I told him that I thought I did have some.”
Lancaster decided to experiment, moving one plant from the creek bank to a garden on the ranch. “It transplants really well, like an onion or a tomato plant,” he says. “I love to garden and we pulled that one plant apart and planted four plants from it. We covered them up with dirt, watered ‘em, and they just took off. They never did wilt. It was just real easy.”
From the one transplant, 180 acres of Eastern gamagrass now grows on Lancaster’s ranch. “My wife and I spent many, many days pulling weeds,” he says. “We didn’t have anyone telling us what to do, because no one else had it growing in Texas. But, we kept it going and it just ballooned on us.”
Hearty, drought-tolerant, and rich in protein, the plant drew attention, particularly since it does not require as much fertilizer as some other crops. Other ranchers and farmers dropped by the ranch about 70 miles northwest of Austin to see the grass during organized “field days.”
“It does not have to be in wet soil at all, but it does real well in wet places, even standing water,” says Lancaster, noting that Texas was weathering a summer of withering drought. “It also does very well in dry conditions. It’s the only grass in this part of the state that’s green right now, because it’s got the deepest root system of any native grasses that we have.”
HARVESTING THE SEED
Lancaster took the next step, deciding to harvest grass seed. The grass produces seed-bearing stems beginning in July and lasting for less than two months. Harvesting with a combine begins the process. Afterward, the grass is moved to drying trailers, and when dry it goes back through the combine, Lancaster says. Then, repeated trips through a seed cleaner produce large marketable seeds.
The gamagrass does have a high-percentage of dormant seeds that might not sprout immediately. “That is a drawback, because some of the seeds won’t come up the first year, but within two years you can usually get it where it’s just perfect,” Lancaster says.
The key is a well-prepared, weed-free seed bed, and farmers tend to evaluate the best approach to preparing the soil based on their own land’s unique requirement, Lancaster says. Beginning a year in advance of planting gamagrass is important, allowing time to kill all weeds as they appear in each season. Because the grass is a cousin to corn, corn-safe herbicides typically work fine for gamagrass, Lancaster says.
There is no secret to collecting and processing the seed, but it is time consuming and few others go to the trouble, Lancaster says. Anyone interested in planting Lancaster’s gamagrass can buy seed from him at $14 pure-live-seed pound.
With a commercial product available, Lancaster took the next step. He applied for, and eventually won, a listing under the Plant Variety Protection Act for the seeds from the variety of gamagrass on his farm. For 20 years, no one else can sell the exact same seed as he does. “It’s like getting a patent on it,” he says.
The seed is known as Texas Sue, named after Lancaster’s wife, who gets noticed when the couple visits Texas agriculture expos.
“Someone usually comes up and asks her if she’s Texas Sue,” Lancaster says. “It’s the only grass in Texas named after a woman.”
Georgia writer Noble Sprayberry is a frequent contributor to Out Here.