The Ogallala could get a big boost if people in southwest Kansas just planted a different kind of grass, according to Finney County Extension agent David Coltrain.
“Water use from the Ogallala Aquifer for fescue, bluegrass and even Bermuda could be cut 75 to 100 percent by simply switching grasses,” he said.
Officials have estimated the aquifer will be 70 percent depleted within 50 years if nothing changes, causing a loss of 40 percent of irrigated acres due to inadequate well flow.
In his class “Landscape Strategies: Fall Planning for Spring Potential,” held Thursday night at the Finney County Fairgrounds grandstand meeting room, Coltrain shared the downfalls of growing grass like fescue in southwest Kansas and offered two alternatives — blue grama and African dog turf — both known to require little water and little mowing.
Coltrain’s observation is that most yards in Garden City consist of fescue, buffalo or Bermuda grass, or a mixture of the three.
“About 30 percent is fescue,” Coltrain said. “Bermuda is fairly common, probably about 14 percent — and again, I’m just guessing. About 20 percent is buffalo grass, which is used by people who don’t want to water or don’t have enough money to water.”
He said that because Kansas, particularly the western half, is located in what he refers to as a transition zone where neither cool-season grasses, such as fescue and blue grass, or warm-season grasses, such as Bermuda and zoysia, are well-suited for the area.
“North of us, they grow cool-season grasses. South of us, they grow warm-season grasses. So since we’re in a transition zone, what do you think grows good in western Kansas? Neither grows good,” Coltrain said.
He also said southwest Kansas is in a transition zone in terms of annual rainfall.
“East of us, they get 30 inches or more of rain,” he said. “What grows good in the east is fescue, blue grass and Bermuda.”
Coltrain said all three of those grasses require as much as 40 inches of moisture per year.
In contrast to the eastern half of the state, western Kansas gets an average of 20 inches or less of rain per year. Fescue lawns must be watered almost constantly to make up for the difference in moisture.
Alternatives to fescue, Coltrain said, are the warm-season grasses, such as buffalo grass, blue grama and African dog turf.
Both blue grama and African dog turf have better heat and drought tolerance and require little moisture once established, unlike fescue and other types of cold-season grasses.
In fact, according to the information sheet provided by Coltrain, blue grama only needs to be watered every two to three weeks, even in areas that receive less than 8 inches of annual precipitation. It also requires little mowing — as little as once or twice a year — and only needs to be cut to a height of 3 to 4 inches.
Steven Michael, who attended the class Thursday night, planted blue grama at his home a few years ago and said there are several benefits to leaving it a little longer.
“Because then it shades the soil, keeps the soil cool, conserves moisture and all that stuff,” Michael said.
The same is true for African dog turf, according to Coltrain. In fact, it’s recommended that no more than a half an inch of African dog turf be removed or cut at a time. Otherwise, it is susceptible to sunburn.
Both types of grasses should be planted in May or June, Coltrain said.
The best way to establish African dog turf is by planting it over fescue.
“What’s real funny — the best way to get this established is have a really great fescue yard,” Coltrain said, adding that one should start by killing the fescue around the beginning of May, using a product such as Roundup, and then plant the African dog turf about a month later.
He compared this process to farmers with no-till operations, in which their crop residuals are left on the ground to provide ground cover, which helps retain moisture and prevents soil erosion.
Coltrain said grasses like blue grama and African dog turf are used heavily in states with drier climates, such as Colorado, California, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, and that getting people in Kansas to switch to these heartier varieties would go a long way in conserving water.
Those who missed Thursday night’s class can catch the one being held at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Holcomb Recreation Center, 106 Wiley St.
For more information about blue grama, African dog turf, as well as tips about growing, fertilizing, and weeding those grasses, contact Coltrain at 272-3670 or email email@example.com.