In California's Imperial Valley, where farmers grow everything from alfalfa to zucchini, many are choosing bermudagrass. It's a crop with a lot of potential.
That's Curtis Corda's assessment, and he's not alone. The Imperial Valley has become the crop's global headquarters. An estimated 90% of the world's bermudagrass seed is grown there.
“Bermuda hay and straw are an emerging market,” and the seed usually finds a strong market, too, says Corda, who farms near El Centro. He grows about 1,500 acres of bermuda along with 800 of alfalfa, 300 of sudangrass, and other crops such as sugar beets and wheat.
“Bermuda provides three things: bermuda seed, bermuda hay and bermuda straw,” Corda says.
His management can be weighted more heavily toward hay or seed, depending on the market, rotational needs and weather conditions. Almost all of his bermuda acreage is common bermudagrass, the generic seed used to grow lawns all across America.
The crop usually yields no seed its first year, but he gets two hay cuttings. In the second year, he can irrigate in February and decide whether to produce seed or hay. If seed prices are good, he combines the crop in June. After taking off the seed he waters back, then decides whether he wants a second seed crop in the fall.
“Or I can grow two hay crops after I harvest seed in June,” Corda reports. Or he may decide to cut the crop for hay all year. He can get five cuttings and end up with 8-10 tons of three-string bales.
Prices range from about 90¢ to $2/lb for cleaned, hulled seed. His yields range from 325 to 650 lbs/acre, depending largely on soil and weather conditions.
“I'm happy with that,” he says of the $1.50/lb he got in 2002. And the straw he bales after the seed is combined brings up to $65/ton.
Corda's bermuda hay, which averaged $80/ton last year, often goes to the compressed-bale export market, as does the straw.
The rest of the hay is sold in California as forage for horses or dry dairy cows.
Herman Meister, University of California field crop agronomist in Imperial County, says most bermudagrass seed was once grown in the Arizona desert east of Yuma, but it has switched to California. Roughly 53,000 acres were grown in the Imperial Valley in 2001, up from 10,000 acres in 1997. The crop's flexibility is one factor. A dramatic decline in sudangrass acreage, due in part to quality problems, is another.
“Sudangrass has gotten to be a losing proposition,” so growers are substituting bermuda, Meister says.
Corda also likes that the crop can be grown on poorly drained fields where alfalfa doesn't do well.
“It gives you optimal production for about seven years,” he says.