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Bermudagrass – History, Management, Forage, and Hay      

Bermudagrass is an excellent perennial hot season (southern) grass for grazing alpacas. It produces moderate protein levels, is tremendously productive, lives in marginal soils, and responds well to water and fertilizer. It is superb winter hay quite resistant to rot and mold. Here is some information on its history, cultivation and regional applications. More is available at our seminars or with a consult.

Bermudagrass (cynodon dactylon) originated on the east African savannas. It was well known in ancient India where it was considered a sacred feed for the revered cows. In Roman times, the plant sap was used as an astringent and medicinal diuretic, as well as for feeding cattle.

Generic “wild type” (also known as “U-3”) bermudagrass grows widely over much of the continental United States, but does best in the mid to deep south, and at altitudes less than 3000 feet. It is known by many names (bahama grass, devils grass, etc).

Bermudagrass arrived in the USA directly from Africa in 1751. About the same time, it appeared in the port of Bermuda. Bermudagrass spread quickly on the island's sandy, but fertile soils. Today, many of the island's golf courses are covered with the fine bladed green grass.

After introduction, the grass quickly spread across the continental US. “Bermuda” was well adapted to the southern Texas grasslands and likely arrived there in the late 18th century. In the mid 1800's, the cattle industry took advantage of this incredibly prolific grass to graze longhorn cattle in preparation for the Kansas cattle drives. The fertile Bermudagrass seed, passed in huge numbers through the cattle manure, quickly spread widely across the south central plains.

Bermudagrass can spread in three ways: 1) fertile seed, 2) surface stolons (runners) and 3) underground rhizomes or root-like runners. Under ideal conditions, stolons can spread several feet in one week. Such aggressive growth makes this grass highly invasive. Some consider it a problem grass, as it will rapidly take over other forages. Once established, it forms a very dense thick turf mat that is very efficient at holding soil against water/wind erosion or mechanical disruption such as shod horse hooves.

The root structure of Bermudagrass can be very deep, with roots able to extend down many yards in sub-soil as the plant actively seeks non-surface water sources. Thus, it is naturally resistant to a few weeks of sparse rainfall.

Bermuda has a few drawbacks. In the winter or with drought, it becomes completely dormant (not dead!) with the surface vegetation turning straw yellow. With the arrival of warmer temperatures or water, the above ground plant rapidly regrows and amazingly, within days returns to a deep green. It also requires warm soil temperatures for seed germination. Thus, Bermudagrass does not do well in more northern zones where deep frosts kill the roots and impede germination. Lastly, it requires substantial nitrogen fertilization to maximize its productivity. .

With fertilization, heat and water, bermudagrass is one of the most productive grasses and will provide three to four times the tonnage of forage per acre compared to the northern grasses (fescues, orchardgrass, etc).

There are many cultivars (varietals) of bermudagrass with some adapted to the close cropping of golf course greens, some for lawns that do not grow rapidly and others adapted for pasture (forage) use. Most are established by spring seeding. Some cultivars do not produce a fertile seed (Tifton 85 for example) and must be established by vegetative sprigging. In the sprigging process, the parent turf mat and root structure are dug up and then mechanically broken up, exposing foot long strands of surface plant, roots and rhizomes. These “sprigs”, each with a root node at the blade tip base, are planted in shallow soil “slits”. At each node, the plant starts a new root system. Within weeks, new sod is established.

One common varietal, “Coastal”, was named for the Georgia Coastal Plain Agriculture Station where the cultivar was first developed (1943). Coastal bermudagrass produces about twice the forage mass per acre contrasted to the “wild” or common “U3” bermudagrass. This varietal is also well adapted to hot environments, but not cold winters. Many Texans just refer to this grass as “Coastal” and do not know it as a bermudagrass varietal.

Another varietal, Tifton-44, is more cold tolerant and can be grown a hundred miles north of the Coastal bermudagrass border. Coastcross-1 is another varietal that has an even higher digestibility, but does not do well outside the deep-south with lots of water. KF-194 is even more cold tolerant than Tifton-44 and can grow through Nebraska and Illinois. Other varietals (Guymon, Wrangler) are adapted to the drier high plains climates such as eastern Colorado, northern Texas, western Kansas and western Oklahoma. Your local agricultural extension agent can recommend a forage bermudagrass varietal that is well adapted for your local patterns of summer heat, moisture, winter cold and rainfall patterns.

Alpacas love bermudagrass! It contains almost the perfect level of protein for the average alpaca and has a high digestibility. In the spring, protein percent can be in the high teens - not as dangerously high as legumes (alfalfa or clover). By mid-summer, the protein percent decreases to the lower to mid teens and by August, it can be in the (mid) single digits. However, application of fertilizer and irrigation can maintain an appropriate protein level of 12-14%.

Bermudagrass productivity often requires large amounts applied nitrogen (see websites below for specifics) during the growing season. The grass will grow on marginal, even poor quality soils, but this will not be an appropriate grass for grazing or for hay. Fertilizer is expensive, but one bermudagrass fertilizer calculation suggests that for every $ spent on fertilizer, you get the equivalent of $20-40 dollars in forage value. This is a good return by any accounting! Rather than putting out all the fertilizer in one spring application, best practice suggests putting out smaller amounts of fertilizer every six weeks or so in proportion to the growing rate.

Cost wise, the best fertilizers are the granular products. Be aware that granular urea (44-0-0) will sublimate (evaporate) unless water is immediately applied (with 12 hours) of urea application or the urea is turned into the soil by disking.

The best way to fertilize is to get a midwinter soil test performed (contact ag extension agent) and then fertilize later in the spring to the specific forage plant needs and to what your soil already has contained within it. Most lawn fertilizers purchased from home/garden stores are very costly and contain nutrients that bermudagrass simply does not need.

Stop bermudagrass nitrogen fertilization about a month before of the first fall “hard” frost, as the late nitrogen boost will over stimulate the plant's leaf growth leaving it more susceptible to winter frost “burn”. Rather, allow the forage to gradually cold “harden” naturally as the plant puts down energy resources into the roots preparing for spring regrowth.

Apply surface water (flood or surface irrigation) at the amount of 1-2 inches per week adjusted for your local conditions. Little to no watering may be needed with deep topsoil and adequate subsurface water. On the other hand, soils with high clay content (large water run-off) may need more frequent watering with less water applied per session. Never water daily for only 15 minutes as this encourage thin surface root growth. Rather, longer, less frequent watering is necessary to supply the deeper roots. Watering at night is most efficient as there is less evaporation, but can encourage plant mold and “rusts” if the morning dew is not quickly dried off. Adjust irrigation for your local soil conditions and weather.

Mowing is critically important for bermudagrass pastures. Be aware that bermudagrass has high levels of silica and will quickly dull mower blades. The sharper the blade, the cleaner the cut, which leaves the grass less susceptible to fungal rot. For this reason, never cut wet or dew covered bermudagrass. Mowing height of bermudagrass can be from 2 - 4 inches, but never cut more than 1/3rd of the plant at any one time. Most alpacas like a grazing plant height of 2.5 – 3.5 inches and will ignore taller bermudagrass. Cutting too short does not allow sufficient grass leaf area for photosynthesis and this weakens the plant. Due to the rapid grass growth in late spring, a productive bermudagrass pasture may have to be mowed twice a week (!) with weekly mowings more typical in mid to late summer.

Periodic and timely mowing is an effective (the best!) way to eliminate weeds, burrs and other noxious weeds as the weed seed heads are eliminated before they become fertile. Problem weed areas can be dealt with by spot application of short-term non-persistent herbicide (e.g. glyphosate). Just make sure you are getting the consumer grade (2-4%) glyphosate (commercially sold under Roundup name). Most other persistent herbicides (such as 2,4-D) stunt the grass and are very toxic to alpacas due to long-term residues.

Bermudagrass hay can be purchased in several sizes; the so-called “square” 60 lb (actually rectangular), 3-wire wrapped 100 lb bales, the larger (truly) square bales (500 lbs), or the 1200 lb round bales. We strongly suggest you sample the hay and get a forage report to determine the hay nutrient value. Just because the hay dealer “says” it is good – how does he/she know that? The cost is minimal and then you can be sure of what you are feeding.

An experienced hay grower/dealer is a valuable resource. Knowledgeable growers know how to grow grass, when to cut, how much and when to dry and the right time to bale. Hay picked up in the field is less costly than hay stored in a barn, but you may need to drop everything to get it at that price. One rainfall and all is lost . . . .

Fresh-baled hay should not be fed. Rather, fresh cut hay needs a curing or sweating time with a length dependent on the cutting and drying conditions. Curing actually allows a complex set of chemical reactions that fix plant proteins to retain the nutritive value over the winter storage time.

Heat is the single number one enemy of good hay. Yes, older barns had the hay stored in the hot loft, but we now know that this is about the worst place to store it! If any roof leak occurs, the hay will mold or worse, develops spontaneous combustion. Note that this is the number one killer of livestock! Heat also degrades vitamins far more quickly than ambient storage conditions (read the section on alfalfa for storing/stacking hay).

Lastly, bermudagrass does very well with a winter season annual grass. As fall approaches, many farms spread an annual inexpensive seed that grows well under cooler conditions. We strongly recommend wheat or oats and absolutely discourage rye grass. Both wheat and oats germinate and grow well just as the bermudagrass is going dormant. Nutritionally, the resulting forage is very similar to orchardgrass and is ideally suited for dams with fall crias that need fresh grasses for lactation. The annual grasses also grow very quickly in the very early spring, perhaps a month or two before the bermudagrass breaks winter dormancy.

In summary, bermudagrass forage or hay is excellent for general alpaca feeding. It is widely available, easily grown in many areas and chokes out weeds. Browse through the attached websites for more specific information.

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