Farmers in northwestern Arkansas are proving they can consistently produce high-quality bermudagrass hay.

They have won nearly every hay contest entered in the past six years, dominating the perennial grass category of the American Forage and Grassland Council's hay contest. They have posted high relative feed values across all cuttings. And they've shown that this is more than a stunt — good hay is profitable.

“Everybody's calling to ask, ‘What are you guys doing down there?’” says Jim Singleton, a banker and farmer who lives near Maysville. Singleton is also the chairman of Benton County's Quality Forage program.

A contest has been the catalyst for the leap forward. It started because nine years ago Singleton won the hay contest of the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association with high-quality bermudagrass hay. That opened the door to conversations with county extension agent Robert Seay and others, and Singleton suggested a hay contest to spark farmer interest.

Singleton went to all the ag lenders and business people in the county and gathered about $6,000 in prize money for the first contest in 1998.

“We had good prizes,” he says. “We gave away $500 for first place and $500 for best grower, plus all the other prizes. We had 35 or 40 growers enter that first year.”

Then, as now, their annual contest in late November or early December combines the hay contest with a banquet and an educational program.

When the contest began, only three hay growers knew how to produce this kind of quality. But Singleton says, “We shared everything we knew. Within a couple years 20 farmers were producing high quality.”

Each year the hay contest gives new memberships to the 100 Club, an award program for growers who submit bermuda-grass hay samples with relative feed values over 100. They each get a cap and a certificate — bragging rights for 48 producers at last count.

“Everybody wants that 100 Club certificate to hang on the wall,” Singleton says. “It's been really popular. They say, ‘Nobody's ever told us we were doing a good job before.’”

Much of the hay these farmers grow sells to horse owners. With 60,000 of them in Arkansas and the new affluence of the nearby Wal-Mart-Tyson corridor, the growers are tapped into a ready market.

Along the way, they have learned that the horse market is primarily a woman's market, so those who sell small bales make them lighter. Typically, 50-lb bales sell for $4 each, or $160/ton. With annual yields commonly 7-8 tons/acre, the economic force is significant.

“I think I shocked some people last year when I said these guys are flirting with $1,000-per-acre yields,” Seay says.

Dutch and Ozzie Rodgers, brothers who have 800 acres of bermuda-grass near Decatur, are selling horse hay as far away as Dallas, TX.

“A lot of people who buy hay from me say they can't buy hay this good anywhere else,” Dutch says.

But these hay growers are earning financial rewards from their hay at home, too. Vernon Schmiegelow, a purebred Angus breeder near Gravette, says that, since he learned to produce great bermudagrass hay a few years ago, he has pretty well eliminated grain feeding after weaning. Just as good, he says his weaned calves don't slide backward; they keep growing.

Others have found the same advantages, including a father-son stocker operation that has cut sickness and eliminated medicated feeds by using high-quality bermudagrass hay.

“Our whole purpose is to show people if you take care of bermudagrass, it will take care of you,” Singleton says.

Cut Early And Often

Benton County, AR, growers who consistently harvest high-yielding, high-quality bermudagrass hay all use the best-possible management practices, says Jim Singleton, chairman of the county's Quality Forage program. He recommends these steps:

  • Get it clean early in the season — spray for weeds by April 15. Make the most of the first growth period and cutting.

  • Fertilize about April 20 for the May 20 cutting.

  • Always get the first cutting by June 1. The real tonnage comes off the first two cuttings.

  • Fertilize immediately after cutting with 80-85 lbs actual nitrogen. Most of these Arkansas growers use ammonium nitrate and apply it late in the evening.

  • Cut every 28-30 days — the most important factor of all.

  • Quality can be good on the early cuttings, but it will always be higher on the last two or three cuttings. Market accordingly.

  • Soil-test each fall. Potassium is a key nutrient that helps prevent bermudagrass winterkill.