Sudangrass's popularity — and market potential — may increase with this spring's introduction of a new hybrid.

That hybrid contains a brown-midrib (BMR) gene that reduces the amount of lignin in the plant, making it more digestible. Developed by Cal/West Seeds, the product is being marketed under the Hi-Gest technology trademark, says the company's President/CEO, Paul Frey.

“We don't plan to focus on the BMR trait exclusively. We did utilize the BMR gene to help us get to our goal, but there were also 17 years of plant breeding and inbred line development involved,” Frey says.

The outcome of that goal: a more digestible hybrid that can be grazed, cut as hay or made into silage. Western U.S. growers, in particular, may see increased exports of the grass.

“Sudangrass is already a very important component of dairy rations in Japan and we're bringing in more digestible sudangrass hay that we believe will improve its milk output,” Frey says.

The hybrid sudangrass showed itself to be more digestible than conventional varieties in in vitro tests, says forage specialist Dan Putnam at the University of California-Davis.

Putnam has compared the annual hybrid with conventional varieties for two years. A 2005 forage quality analysis showed that “the Cal/West line was lower in NDF but higher in NDF digestibility — by a significant amount. It was higher in crude protein by a couple of points and lower in ADF and NDF by a couple of points. The BMR line was always superior to Piper (the control variety) and other non-BMR sudangrasses — more fermentable and more digestible.”

His 2006 yield trial results in El Centro, CA, showed Piper at 9.3 tons/acre of dry matter and the hybrid at 8.5. “That's actually in line with our previous studies — that there is some yield difference between Piper and the Cal/West Hi-Gest line. But that should not be a major concern to growers,” he says. “A lot of sudangrass growers in the low deserts of California sacrifice yield in favor of quality. They back off on nitrogen rates and harvest so they attain a high-quality product for the export market.

“This variety should assist in their efforts to supply a higher-quality sudangrass product,” Putnam says. “It's an exciting development.”

Jimmy Ray Parish, forage specialist at Mississippi State University, has compared the Hi-Gest hybrid with Piper in stocker cattle grazing trials. “The BMR variety that we have been working with has superior digestibility to the conventional sudangrass,” he says. “So, in theory, one would think that we should get higher animal gains and, numerically, we have.”

“When you look at the numbers and compare the weight-gain differences, they're there,” says Cal/West's Jon Reich, executive vice president of research and development. The results of Parish's 2005 trials showed an average daily gain of 1.80 lbs for the hybrid vs. Piper's 1.52 lbs.

Parish also compared yields. “The BMR gene has been associated with lower yields (in other crops); we haven't seen those lower yields in the hybrid sudangrass. Of course, numerically, the conventionals yielded more. But it's not statistical; therefore we consider them to be the same.”

Probably the most exciting study showing the hybrid's potential was a four-cow milk production trial done at the University of California-Davis.

“We found that the Hi-Gest sudangrass could substitute for as much as half of the alfalfa in a total mixed ration without lowering milk production in late-lactation cows,” says Reich. “Most dairy producers in California would never think of using sudangrass hay in TMRs because it is viewed as a relatively low-quality feed. And yet there was no drop-off in milk production.”

A larger study is in the works, Reich says. More animals, at earlier lactation stages, will be fed for a longer period at differing percentages of Hi-Gest and Piper.

“We're confident that we can get highly statistically significant results because the trends we were seeing were very strong,” he adds.

The loss in protein content, when substituting the grass for alfalfa, is less than many believe, Reich says. “If sudangrass is well-managed and cut at the appropriate time, you can put up 18%-protein hay whereas alfalfa is 22-25%.”

A low-lignin, highly digestible sudangrass offers increased market potential, say Reich and Frey. With more corn going into ethanol production, and higher alfalfa hay production costs in California, Reich prophesies that the hybrid could earn a place in dairy diets.

Several seed companies that sell to the eastern U.S. are excited about it, Reich says.

“Sorghum-sudangrasses just don't cure well in the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast and the North-east in summer because of the high humidity. They have thick stalks. Sudangrass has a very fine stem in comparison, and has a much better curing capability that lends itself better as a hay crop,” he says. “In addition, the Hi-Gest hybrid is better suited for an aggressive grazing system due to its rapid recovery after cutting or grazing and its high tillering capacity.”

Western growers have been exporting sudangrass to Japan for more than a decade. Offering a more digestible variety that will be identity-preserved, points out Frey, may increase its market appeal.

“The low-lignin sudangrass has also been shown to be very beneficial to sheep and lamb production with significantly higher digestibility,” he says. “And in the Middle East, sudangrass is a significant feedstuff for lamb production, so we're excited about what Hi-Gest can do in that market, as well.”

Frey sees market potential even in the Midwest, where sudangrass is viewed more as emergency forage. “We think, with the Hi-Gest technology, there are more uses for it because it is a more palatable feedstuff.”

Introductory amounts of the hybrid will be available from various seed companies this spring. According to Frey, Cal/West will feature the Hi-Gest technology and other improvements, including increased yield potential, in future sudangrass introductions.

For more information, visit www.calwestseeds.com.