Its yield and quality will never knock your socks off. But bromegrass is dependable, almost always producing respectable yields of highly digestible forage for haying or grazing.
This cool-season grass can't compete with alfalfa on the best Midwestern fields. But it's easier and less expensive to grow, it's more persistent and is a good choice for marginal fields where alfalfa doesn't do well.
“That good river bottom ground is usually not the place for it,” says Gary Fuller, a commercial hay grower from Emporia, KS.
Fuller grows 300-400 acres of bromegrass, along with 200-300 acres of alfalfa and 2,000-2,500 acres of prairie hay. The bromegrass is mostly on highly erodible fields and fields with alkali soils.
“It's a good, consistent crop for upland ground,” he says.
He gets just one bromegrass cutting, up to 3 tons/acre in a good year, plus usually some fall grazing for his dad's beef cattle. The fall grazing is a big plus for bromegrass growers in his area.
“It's a good way to start fall calves,” says Fuller. “They can get them out there away from the dusty or muddy feedyards, and with pellets or a protein source, they'll gain a couple pounds a day.”
He sells his brome hay mostly to horse owners, hauling it as far as Tennessee, Texas and Colorado.
“The horse people have always liked it, and the feedlots are starting to chirp up on it nowadays,” says Fuller.
It sometimes brings a premium over prairie hay, he says, because it's higher in protein, at 10-12%.
“Bromegrass has a reputation as being good hay,” agrees Gary Kilgore, Kansas State University's southeast area agronomist at Chanute. “It's normally not a problem for producers to sell all the brome hay they have for sale. If you've got it, it's pretty good property.”
Its digestibility is its strongest selling point, says Kilgore.
“When cattlemen buy yearlings and bring them in from the sale or wherever, the first thing they like to start them out on is some good brome hay,” he says.
“Fairly early cut brome is an excellent forage for horses,” Kilgore adds. “As far as I'm concerned, it's just as good as orchardgrass and probably timothy.”
In Kansas, brome hay prices have stayed in the $70-80/ton range the past few years, he says. This year, though, prices for all types of hay are running higher.
According to Kilgore, Kansas is a leading bromegrass-producing state, with 750,000 acres of it, mostly in the eastern part. About a third of it is cut for hay. The crop uses spring moisture to produce a good first cutting most years.
“If we have a little rain in spring, we're normally assured of a bromegrass crop,” he says.
Sharp growers like Fuller get about 3 tons/acre from the first cutting, but it's usually also the last one. Kilgore urges growers to try for a second cutting in early October. It won't be as big as the first, but will be higher in quality and probably will bring a higher price if sold.
Properly timing the first cutting maximizes quality and increases the odds of getting a second one. Like most grasses, bromegrass should be cut at or shortly after heading, usually in late May or early June in Kansas. Cutting then also permits some regrowth that will protect crowns from the intense summer heat that's likely to follow.
Warning: Don't cut the crop too short. Bromegrass plants die quickly if the crowns are sliced by cutting machines. That problem seems to be most prevalent with disc mowers, says Kilgore.
“When I talk to producers I really try to get them to set the mower, whatever mower it is, to always leave a 3” stubble. Then they're assured of more rapid regrowth and certainly aren't going to injure the crowns.”
Applying a broadleaf herbicide when needed and proper fertilization are two other keys to keeping bromegrass productive. Kilgore recommends annual applications of nitrogen and phosphorus, plus potassium if the soil test calls for it. They can be applied anytime in winter, but should be on at least two weeks before visual spring green-up.
If you expect to get a second cutting, apply another 50 lbs of actual N after a rain in mid- to late August or early September. That will add a ton of forage to the fall harvest, says Kilgore.
“I normally tell people to wait until the rain comes and then turn around and fertilize it fairly quickly so we can get the uptake of that N.”
Well-managed bromegrass will yield well for 30-40 years or more, says Kilgore. But a lot of old brome stands in Kansas are no longer productive. Typically, they've been cut too late and haven't been fertilized sufficiently, especially with phosphorus.
“We can actually bring those stands back with some proper phosphate application along with N and proper cutting,” says Kilgore.