Horse enthusiast-commercial hay grower Sid Pittman decided not to phone a contract sprigger when increasing his bermudagrass acreage last year.
Instead, the Pearcy, AR, producer seeded his grass.
It's a trend that seems to be accelerating. And it shows that lots of things, in due time, come full circle.
The forage industry's more senior individuals easily recall when seeding common bermudagrass was the only way to establish this warm-season forage. Then came the 1943 introduction of Coastal, a hybrid bermudagrass resulting from the efforts of University of Georgia plant breeder Glenn Burton.
Hybrids produce little viable seed, so producers had to accept the concept of sprigging. Soon, a number of improved hybrid bermudas were coming on the scene. And progress in developing hybrids continues, with some very productive, high-quality varieties now available.
But numerous seed-propagated selections are available, too, and the choices and level of interest in these are growing.
For Pittman, who planted 5 acres of Cheyenne bermudagrass, seeding was more economical. At a seeding rate of about 6 lbs/acre, his seed cost was $75/acre. The cost of sprigs and sprigging in his area would have been at least twice as great, he says.
Expenses of sprigs and sprigging vary considerably. A budget developed by Auburn University ag economists specifies $246/acre for sprigs, plus fertilizer, lime, labor, tractor and equipment, and interest on operating capital. East Texas producers sometimes pay no more than $200/acre, but costs of $300 or more are reported in some areas.
Flexibility is another consideration.
“You can't dig sprigs when the soil is wet, and once sprigs have been dug, they should be planted within about three days,” says Pittman. “Furthermore, if sprigs get wet before you get them in the ground, you can have overheating.
“With seed, you can do your initial soil preparation ahead of time, then plant when there are reasonably good chances of rain within a day or two.”
That was an issue in 2004, when rain was abundant across the South. After buying his seed, Pittman held it for about two weeks before he could plant.
“I couldn't have waited like that with sprigs,” he grins.
There's a logistics difference, too. It takes 20-40 bu of sprigs to establish 1 acre. A bushel is 1.25 cubic feet, and contains about 100 sprigs.
“I've been involved a few times in helping people put out sprigs,” Pittman laughs. “It's hard work. I don't want any part of that again!”
Also, seeding generally is preferred on more challenging terrain. And seeding doesn't require the amount of soil preparation needed for sprigging. In fact, bermudagrass seed can be no-tilled quite successfully if existing vegetation is killed before planting, although many prefer a prepared seedbed.
Pittman's neighbor, Garland County extension agent Jimmy Driggers, used a no-till drill when establishing 8 acres of Ranchero Frio bermudagrass on his farm in 2002. He cites additional reasons to consider seeding.
“Seeding usually is more practical for small acreages,” he says. “In this area, a 3- to 5-acre job is about the minimum most spriggers will accept, due to the time and expense of moving their equipment.”
Varietal purity is another issue.
“If sprigs are taken from a field that's been established for several years, you can't be certain of what you're getting,” Driggers advises. “The sprigs could include a high percentage of common bermudagrass. Varietal purity is completely dependent on the source of sprigs and the supplier's word.”
Early on, seeded bermudagrass usually outyields sprigged bermuda. With seeding, it's not unusual to get a stand of 20 seedlings per square foot vs. only one to two viable sprigs per square yard.
Don Ball, extension forage agronomist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, believes both systems have merit. But he warns that seeded bermuda usually is more susceptible to drought.
“It's because the hybrids develop more extensive root systems,” he says.
Some seeded types are blends of more than one bermudagrass line. With some of these, a particular component may eventually dominate a stand, Ball adds.
Driggers, in Arkansas, has seen a shift in his Ranchero Frio, a blend of Giant, Mohawk and Cheyenne.
“Giant makes a big yield the first few years, then tends to fade out, especially if you have cold winters,” he explains. “But Mohawk and Cheyenne fill in where Giant leaves.” During 2004, the second full year of his stand, it was still 40-50% Giant.
What about long-term yield? Seeded bermudas often equal or exceed the yield of Coastal. But improved hybrids have been the highest yielders in numerous research trials.
In a five-year Texas A&M study at Overton, TX, two hybrids, Tifton 85 and Coastal, were compared to six seeded types. Tifton 85 was the highest yielding, averaging 10,700 lbs of dry matter per acre per year. Coastal averaged 7,000 lbs dry matter per acre, which was not different from the seeded varieties. The seeded varieties included Texas Tough, CD 90160, Tierra Verde, Ranchero Frio, Cheyenne and KF-194, says Texas A&M forage researcher Gerald Evers.
Like so many farming decisions, the question of whether to seed or sprig boils down to a matter of what works best for you. At least it's nice to have a choice.