New varieties and herbicides are available for Southern Coastal Plain forage producers who grow rhizoma perennial peanut, dubbed “the alfalfa of the South.”
“Perennial peanut is growing in popularity, so it's helpful that forage producers have more choices when it comes to growing and managing the crop,” says Ann Blount. She's a University of Florida forage breeder who's been working with the legume for more than 30 years.
The nitrogen-fixing crop is popular throughout Florida and is also grown in parts of southern Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina and Texas. In the late 1990s, it was grown on about 20,000 acres. Today's acreage stands at more than 30,000, with Florida and southern Georgia accounting for a majority of the plantings.
Don Ball, Auburn University extension forage agronomist, calls perennial peanut, “a perfect fit for warm, sub-tropical climates” and regrets that its lack of winterhardiness prevents it from being widely grown in Alabama.
Perennial peanut, used for hay, silage or pasture, is comparable to alfalfa in feed value, with slightly more energy and a little less protein. It typically yields 3-5 tons/acre.
“I recommend harvesting the crop two to three times per year, depending on the growing season,” says Blount. “Irrigation is ideal, but a lot of the production is still on dryland.”
When harvested in small bales, it's popular among horse owners. “Fifty-pound bales sell for $7 each in northern Florida,” she says. “Unfortunately, we don't have a large enough supply right now to meet demand.”
Perennial peanut is also fed to beef cattle and, on a more limited basis, ensiled and fed to dairy cattle. The crop is gaining favor from the Florida Department of Transportation as an attractive roadside sod, too.
Growers have long used the Florigraze and Arbrook varieties, but now have four more to consider. They are UF-Peace and UF-Tito, developed by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, and Arblick and Ecoturf, developed by the University of Florida, and the USDA-NRCS Plant Material Center and USDA's Subtropical Agricultural Research Station, both in Brooksville, FL.
Another significant development: Three herbicides — Impose, Select Max and 2,4-D — are now labeled for perennial peanut, she says.
“The inclusion of perennial peanut on effective herbicide labels is significant. We now have good weed-control measures to aid the perennial peanut during the critical establishment period.”
Although rhizoma perennial peanut is closely related to the field-crop peanut, it does not typically produce seeds and is propagated vegetatively by rhizomes. It has to be propagated with a sprigger, similar to how hybrid bermudagrass is established.
She cautions growers to buy rhizomes from reputable suppliers and to invest in good herbicide programs to ensure successful establishment. The cost of establishment is steep. “Growers should budget $250-$300/acre for sprigs and another $250/acre for land preparation, herbicides, labor, etc.”
“Once established, perennial peanut stands can last for decades,” says Auburn University's Ball.
“We have plantings from the 1970s that are still thriving,” Blount concurs.