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Looking For The "Silver Bullet" In Our Forage Arsenal

Posted Mar. 31, 2002

Spring is here and we are almost out of time to make those last minute decisions on what to plant for summer grazing. Each year during April, we receive numerous phone calls inquiring about planting summer grasses and other forages. There are always inquiries about any new "super grasses" that they should consider, which leads me to ask the question, "What do you want your grass to do?" Here is a short list of qualities most often mentioned:

  1. adaptable to all soil types in our climate,
  2. covers rapidly/establishes quickly, preferably from seed,
  3. produces forage to carry a cow on 1-2 acres year long,
  4. requires little or no fertility (and preferably fixes nitrogen),
  5. maintains high nutritive values yearlong,
  6. very palatable and recovers quickly from haying or grazing,
  7. tolerant of severe overgrazing,
  8. very drought tolerant (and cold tolerant),
  9. and, of course, is cheap to establish.

This syndrome of seeking the perfect forage is kindly referred to as "looking for the silver bullet" by us forage specialists. The problem is, there are no "silver bullets" (nor do the forage specialists at the Ag Division wear black masks or ride horses while calling "Hi, ho, Silver!"). There are no "super forages." All forages require management, and some require more than others.

In order to assist producers considering establishing new pastures, I'll focus on specific forage types and prerequisites to insure the greatest probability of success. Keep in mind that well before any area is planted, soils tests should be performed so that appropriate soil amendments can be applied if needed. Also, best results usually occur on prepared seedbeds, and are the basis for the following planting recommendations. If neither of these actions have been performed by now, you are already behind, but maybe not too late. (Note: all recommended seeding rates are on a pure live seed (PLS) basis.)

Hybrid (sprigged) bermudagrass varieties (Coastal, Midland, Tifton 44, etc.)
Most sprigged varieties need to be in the ground by mid-April. Ideal planting time is February through early April. They are usually better suited for sandy or loamy soils with pH between 5.0 to 7.5. Clay soils are more difficult to place sprigs into. Sprig placement should be no deeper than about 4 inches on sandy soils and 2 inches on clay soils. Recommended sprigging rate is 15 to 30 bushels per acre.

Seeded bermudagrass varieties (Wrangler, Cheyenne,Giant, Common, etc.)
Seeded varieties need to be planted into a firm seedbed no deeper than 1/4 inch by mid-May. They are suitable to most soils with pH between 5.0 and 7.5. Bermudagrass is not usually recommended on soils that are prone to hold water for extended periods. Recommended seeding rate varies from 3 to 5 pounds (PLS) per acre for uncoated seed, up to 10 to 12 pounds per acre for coated seed.

Old World bluestems (Plains, Caucasian, B-Dahl, Spar, Ironmaster, etc,)
Old World bluestems are best adapted to well-drained clay and loam soils. Some varieties are better adapted to higher pHs (over 7.5 - Ironmaster especially) but optimum range in pH is 5.5 to 7.5. Plant into a firm seedbed at 2 to 5 pounds per acre rate at a depth of 1/4 inch. Planting should be performed in mid-April.

Weeping lovegrass (Morpa, Ermelo, etc.)
Lovegrass is best suited to sandy and loamy soils. It produces forage earlier in the spring than most summer perennials. It tends to become unpalatable as the growing season progresses, if unmanaged. Seed at a rate of 0.5 to 3.0 pounds per acre at a depth of 1/2 inch between February and mid-April.

Bahia grass
Bahia grass is most widely used south of the Red River and east of I-35. It is best suited to well-drained clay soils   and loams. It can subsist on very little fertility but it is not as productive as fertilized bermudagrass. Plant at a soil depth of 1/4 inch or less at a rate between 12 to 20 pounds per acre from April through mid-May.

Kleingrass
Kleingrass is best adapted to the western areas of Texas and southern-most Oklahoma, west of I-35. It is best suited for clay and loamy soils with pH of 5.5 to 8.0. Plant kleingrass into a firm seedbed in April or May at a rate of 1.5 to 3.0 pounds per acre at a depth of less than 1/4 inch.

Dallisgrass
Dallisgrass is well-suited for poorly drained soils as well as most bottomland clay and loam soils. It is not as productive as bermudagrass except where drainage is a problem. It performs best if planted into heavy bottomland soils at a rate of 10 to 15 pounds per acre during April or May at a depth of 1/4 inch.

Millets (German, Browntop, Pearl)
Millets are summer annuals usually planted as a hay crop on fertile cropland. They are usually planted in late April or May (well past the threat of frost) at a rate of 20 to 35 pounds per acre into a prepared seedbed at a depth of 1/2 to 1 inch. Millets are most productive on loamy and sandy soils. They can accumulate nitrates under high fertility and low moisture conditions.

Sorghums and Sudangrass
Most sorghums and sudan grasses planted for forage (hay, silage, or grazing) are best suited to loam and well-drained clay soils. These forages are summer annuals planted on productive cropland (well past the threat of frost). Most are planted in late April, May and early June at a rate of 15 to 40 pounds per acre at a depth of 1 inch. These forages can accumulate nitrates under high fertility and low moisture conditions, and are prone to accumulate prussic acid when stressed (drought or frost).

Johnsongrass
Johnsongrass is occasionally planted as a perennial forage. It performs best on clay and loam soils. Recommended planting rate is 15 to 30 pounds per acre at a depth of 3/4 inch, preferably in April and May. Johnsongrass is prone to accumulate prussic acid when   stressed (drought or frost), and can accumulate nitrates under high fertility, low moisture conditions.

Crabgrass (Red River)
Crabgrass is a summer annual grass that works well as a double-crop with winter pasture because, once established, it readily volunteers back annually from seed. It is well adapted to sandy and loamy soils with pH between 5.0 and 7.5. Plant crabgrass at a depth of 1/8 inch or less into a firm seedbed at a rate of 3 to 5 pounds per acre from mid-April through May.

There are numerous other summer forages (including many more natives), but these are some of the most inquired about. As can be seen, none can be referred to as the infamous "silver bullet." However, good and proper management before and after planting will go a long way toward establishing a forage species that can contribute to your forage arsenal. The "pearl handled pistols" of weed control, proper fertility and harvest management are irreplaceable in pasture establishment. In paraphrasing the late Ag Division plant breeder, Dr. Dick Bates, "Management is equal to or greater than the importance of variety," and this statement can often be applied to forage type or species.

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