It's Time to Think About Warm-Season Grasses
It's the time of year again when questions about what grass to plant inundate the Noble Research Institute's phone lines. What is the best bermudagrass or the best old world bluestem, or what about planting native grasses? Are there any new noteworthy grasses? In reality, not much has changed, but it is time to prepare for your spring plantings, if you have not already done so. Here are some of my thoughts for you to ponder some based on research, some on observation, some on experience and all open to discussion!
Being the beginning of March, bermudagrass sprigging should be underway or at least planned for this month. Ideally, we would like to see the sprigging completed before mid April. It is always best to use an acclimated variety. The hybrid bermudagrass varieties that top the Noble Research Institute variety test are still Tifton 85, Ozark and Midland 99. Although it has over-wintered well at Ardmore, Tifton 85 is probably better suited to highly productive soils in the southern portions of the Foundation's service area because of its lack of cold tolerance.
Ozark is the most recently released variety, and it has excellent cold tolerance. The price per bushel of Ozark sprigs will be relatively expensive for the next few years until they become more commercially available. Midland 99 is a very productive variety that is well adapted throughout our service area. Midland 99 has become commercially available and is now competitively priced. Other regionally adapted varieties often recommended are Tifton 44 and Midland.
For the past few years, the Ag Division has been conducting a variety test with seeded bermudagrass varieties. At the Ardmore site, several seeded varieties have performed comparably to Midland 99 and Tifton 44. Giant has consistently outperformed other seeded varieties in the test, but may be less cold tolerant than other varieties. Cheyenne has also performed well in the test. Wrangler is another seeded variety that is often recommended because of its cold tolerance and commercial availability. There are other seeded varieties or mixtures in the test. For more information about both bermudagrass variety tests, check out Ag Publications on the Foundation's Web site, www.noble.org, or contact the Ag Division publications department at (580) 224-6480. Keep in mind that seeded varieties should be planted from mid April through May, after soil temperatures are above 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
When selecting a sprigged variety versus a seeded variety of bermudagrass, plant the sprigged varieties on highly productive soils. If lowly productive soils are to be planted, then it may be an issue of timing or availability of bermudagrass options. Sprigged varieties tend to be more water efficient and drought tolerant. If both are options, plant a sprigged variety until mid April, starting with soils that have the most productive potential, and then switch to a seeded variety. Plant bermudagrass (or any introduced grass) only if you plan to fertilize it. Otherwise, don't waste your time or money.
What about the old world bluestems? Based on observations over the last few years, the B-Dahl variety of old world bluestem looks most impressive, but is subject to winter damage if planted much farther north than the southern tier of counties in Oklahoma. Plains bluestem has proven to be reliable and adaptable throughout the Foundation's service area and is readily available commercially. In areas where soil alkalinity is a concern, Ironmaster is a good option. In most instances, the old world bluestems are better adapted west of I-35 and are better suited to heavier soils relative to the bermudagrasses.
Another warm-season perennial that has grabbed my attention in recent years, especially in the counties along the Red River west of Ardmore, is Kleingrass. The only commercially available variety is Selection 75. On loamy soils, particularly clay loams, Kleingrass performs well. Once established and allowed to go to seed, it has the ability to re-establish itself from volunteer seed if grazed-out or droughted-out. I have observed several operations where Kleingrass pastures regenerated in the fall of a year from volunteer seed. Kleingrass can cause photo-sensitivity in horses and sheep, and therefore should only be used by cattle.
What about native grass plantings? It depends on the goals of the producer. Results vary, and don't expect to see results immediately. It may take several years. The better the soils, the greater the probability for success, but there is no substitute for management. The seed of native grasses is expensive, and, for many species, difficult to plant. Seedling survivability is often poor due to competition from unwanted plants. Germination is slow and often delayed until a vernalization period is achieved. Eastern gamagrass is probably the easiest to establish of the most productive native grasses. The commercially available seed can be purchased "pre-treated" to increase the rate of germination. Eastern gamagrass performs best on productive soils with good moisture availability throughout most of the growing season. It is best adapted east of I-35.
The Ag Division has several related publications, articles and bulletins about perennial warm-season grasses and their establishment. Contact the Ag Division's publications department or check out the Web site for more information. Area and state Extension and USDA agency offices are also excellent sources for related information.