This is a South Carolina bermudagrass field suffering from winterkill caused by low fertility, additional potassium leaching, a late fall cutting and a hard winter - among other hindering factors. Surprisingly, it's one of the few fields that has made decent recovery. For more photos, some showing recovered fields, see our photo gallery.
It could be hard to find qood-quality bermudagrass hay this year in South Carolina and Georgia, where winterkill damaged and even destroyed stands, say two Extension forage specialists. Alabama bermudagrass growers are also seeing stand losses.
“Normally, by now, we’d be starting to see some first-cutting bermudagrass come off,” says John Andrae, Clemson University. But some fields are at or near total losses due in part to a disastrous winter, adds Dennis Hancock, his University of Georgia counterpart.
“We’ve been waiting to see if the stands come back. Some of them have; some of them haven’t,” says Andrae. “Those that haven’t, producers are going to have to resprig or go with a summer-annual forage for hay production.”
Current forage supplies are, in general, adequate in South Carolina and Georgia, although not of good quality, he adds. Hancock believes bermudagrass hay prices could increase in Georgia, where beef herds have been expanding and forage acres are down.
Bermudagrass winterkill losses are estimated at about 15% in Alabama, says Jennifer Johnson, Auburn University Extension forage specialist.
“Bermudagrass,” Andrae says, “is a warm-season perennial that should last 30 years if it’s treated well. It’s our main beef-cow hay and our main hay crop. It’s even used in a lot of dairy rations now.
“But the stars aligned in a bad way, and we’ve had some complete losses.” Besides this year’s cold winter, he blames other environmental factors and poor crop management. Growers, the past several years, cut back on potassium (K) applications to save money. Then, last summer, excessive rains leached the soil of the nutrient and also contributed to leafspot disease.
The grass, weakened by nutrient deficiencies and disease, produced lower yields last year, so growers took late fall cuttings to shore up supplies, Andrae points out.
“A lot of folks were cutting bermudagrass later than what we normally recommend,” Hancock adds, not giving plants time enough to build root reserves going into winter.
Then, too, this year’s annual ryegrass, overseeded into bermudagrass pastures, got a late spring start and was still being grazed the end of May. “That shades out the bermudagrass and also robs it of potassium and other nutrients,” Hancock says.
Some also believe that allelopathy – which exudes chemicals from ryegrass that can suppress bermudagrass – was also an issue, he says.
Central and southern South Carolina, where most of the bermudagrass is grown in the state, was hit the hardest, says Andrae. “I’ve had a lot more winterkill calls this year than I’ve had in 13 years.”
Hancock fielded calls from across Georgia.
“We are also seeing the problems mentioned in Georgia and South Carolina,” says Alabama’s Johnson. “Areas that seem to have been affected the most were areas known for having extended periods of standing water throughout much of the previous year and got their last cuttings of bermudagrass late in the year last year.”
Growers there also contended with low fertility, excessive thatch and a moist summer followed by a harsh winter. Stand loss from late-bloomed annual ryegrass this spring also contributed to the problem.
When winterkill problems became apparent, producers were advised to apply pre-emergent herbicides to keep weeds down, Hancock says. Now many are waiting to see how well their fields will recover.
Growers who produce small square bales at premium prices for the horse-hay market will be hit hardest, he and Andrae believe.
Bermudagrass hay prices are roughly at $50-60 per 1,000-lb round bale, or $100-120/ton at a relative forage quality ranging from 100 to 115, Hancock says. Utility hay is running about $35-40/roll. He thinks prices will rise in Georgia, which has seen some beef herd expansion and has lost some forage acres to row crops in recent years.
South Carolina is just rebuilding beef herds after several years of drought, Andrae says, and has enough of a forage supply available.
“The good news,” Hancock says, “is that it’s been a great year for alfalfa. We’ve had perfect conditions for making good alfalfa – baleage as well as hay.” Georgia growers from the Florida line to the northern Georgia mountains are finding they can interseed alfalfa into bermudagrass to increase hay quality and cut fertilizer prices. See our story on the system, “Interseeding Alfalfa Into Bermudagrass.”