Western perennial fetches good price for export.

Kleingrass, a warm-season perennial, is becoming a world traveler. Introduced to this country from Africa several years ago, it's growing in popularity as an export crop to Korea and Japan.

“Kleingrass has come on pretty strong in the past couple of years because there's a growing market for it,” says Michael Rethwisch, a University of California-Davis farm advisor in Riverside County. “In some cases, it's replacing sudangrass for export because of its desirable stem size, color, lower nitrate levels and ease of meeting contract specifications.”

Three years ago there were about 2,000 acres of kleingrass in California, says Rethwisch. This year, he estimates the number will be four to five times higher.

Imperial Valley exporters say that more producers are growing the grass because of its consistent yields of decent-quality forage. Annual yields of the fast-growing, fine-stemmed grass average nearly 10 tons/acre over four to five cuttings with crude protein levels generally in the mid-teens.

Another plus: “Once kleingrass gets established, it pretty much chokes out weeds,” says Rethwisch. “That's a big advantage for our growers because few herbicides are registered for use on forages in this state. And compared to sudangrass, which is an annual, kleingrass can be grown on salty soils. It thrives in hot weather, too.”

He says growers are currently getting $90-100/ton for kleingrass — about the same as for top-quality sudangrass. The forage is cut green, field-dried, baled and double-compressed for export.

“Alfalfa prices haven't been too high in this area lately,” says one exporter. “In some cases last year, growers received more for kleingrass than they did for alfalfa. Plus, on lower-quality ground, you can harvest higher yields of kleingrass than of alfalfa.”

Domestic kleingrass consumption is growing, too. It's fed to dry dairy cows and beef cattle in California and Arizona and grazed in Southern states, including Texas.

However, Rethwisch cautions against grazing horses on kleingrass because it can cause photosensitization, a condition that causes extreme sensitivity to sunlight.

Experts recommend seeding 2 lbs of pure live kleingrass seed per acre in spring after the soil temperature reaches 60°. Seedlings are sturdy and have good root development, but grow slow initially. Kleingrass spreads by tillers or short rhizomes and will root at the nodes where stems come in contact with wet soil.

Growers expect established stands of kleingrass, which resembles the weed fall panicum, to last about five years, says Rethwisch.