Bermudagrass, traditionally a foundation of forage systems in the lower and middle South, is moving north. Consider the experience at Hedeman Farms in southwestern Missouri.
In 1995, Grant Hedeman decided to try something unique for his FFA project. Instead of choosing the typical livestock or crop enterprise, the teenager, who is now 25, convinced his dad they should put in 10 acres of bermudagrass.
Terry Hedeman agreed to go along with his son's plan, but had no hint of what it would lead to. The crop mix at Hedeman Farms, Lockwood, now includes 90 acres of bermudagrass marketed primarily as high-quality horse hay.
“It's probably the most management-intensive enterprise in our grain-soybean-beef cattle operation,” says Terry.
The Hedemans are among those who have taken bermuda out of its old confines and made it work. The first bermuda plantings in Missouri trace back three or more decades, but many early attempts failed. The main reason: Varieties brought up from southern areas were susceptible to winterkill.
“The stands would survive a year or two, then most of them froze out,” explains Tom Hansen, University of Missouri extension agronomist based at Springfield. “It gave bermuda a bad name for a while.”
Two varieties with improved winterhardiness have stimulated new interest in bermuda for the lower Midwest. Midland 99 was released in 1999. Ozark, with even more cold tolerance, was released in 2002.
“Producers should have no problem growing Ozark as far north as the first tier of counties north of the Missouri River,” states Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri extension forage agronomist. “If you're using another variety having improved cold tolerance, such as Midland 99 or Wrangler, a seeded bermuda, you should be safe in the southern third of Missouri, somewhat iffy in the middle third and very much at risk beyond that zone.”
Bermuda offers many benefits:
A warm-season grass, it provides summer grazing when tall fescue is not growing.
It's an alternative hay for those weary of battling alfalfa weevils and leafhoppers.
As horse hay, it's considered the gold standard.
Bermuda can be a replacement for endophyte-infected Kentucky 31 fescue.
A heavy nitrogen user, it's attractive to producers with poultry litter or hog manure.
Sprigs can provide extra income once stands are established.
With proper management, bermudagrass hay yields often range from 5 to 7 tons/acre/year, Kallenbach says.
Hansen, who works with forage producers in 10 southwestern Missouri counties, has seen successes and failures.
“The potential yield and quality are much greater than our other perennial warm-season grasses,” he says. “But some people don't follow through with what it takes.”
Two chief requirements are proper fertilization and timely harvest.
For good results, bermudagrass needs 250-300 lbs of nitrogen/acre/year and similar amounts of potassium. Missouri's standard advice: Apply 100 lbs of N/acre at spring green-up, followed by 35-100 lbs every 30 days through mid-August.
A ton of bermuda hay removes 40 lbs of potassium, which must be replaced to maintain yield and good stands.
As it matures, bermuda declines in quality much faster than cool-season grasses. When cut and baled every 21-28 days, bermudagrass hay often contains 18% crude protein or better. If cut at six-week intervals, it may test 12% or less.
Five cuttings per year are possible using a 21-day interval. A 28-day interval, generally considered the optimum balance between yield and quality, allows four cuttings.
“The bottom line,” says Hansen, “is that bermuda is expensive to grow, but it can make you money under the right circumstances.”
Hedeman, who has Greenfield, Midland 99 and Ozark varieties, has established all his bermudagrass on top-quality row-crop land.
“We wanted to give it the best opportunity to perform, and we wanted to be able to irrigate, if necessary,” he says.
In addition to hay, Hedeman sells sprigs. He says his net income from an acre of bermudagrass hay exceeds that of corn and soybeans.
“But it's more work, and it requires more investment per acre.”
Would he and his son consider additional increases in their bermudagrass acreage?
“We might, if another improved variety came along. But we have to consider the weather-vs.-labor factor in producing high-quality hay. We only have two farm employees, and it's difficult to go more than five days without getting a rain," he says.
“If we mow today, it's usually three more days before we start baling. Even though we fluff the windrows daily, curing bermuda hay is a slow process.”
Hedeman says bermudagrass cures slower than tall fescue because the windrows flatten out. “Even after we refluff them, they settle down again within a couple of hours.”
He tows an accumulator behind his baler. The 10-bale packages are picked up with a front-end-mounted bale grabber and set on a modified 40' cotton trailer that holds 300 bales. Bales are stacked in a shed and loaded onto customers' trucks using the same grabber.
“Bermudagrass has been a good crop for us,” Hedeman concludes, “but it requires intensive management from start to finish.”