Producing Quality Bermudagrass for the Horse Industry
Southern Oklahoma and north Texas have become popular locations for the horse industry, which is primarily due to the major shows hosted annually in Ft. Worth, Oklahoma City and Tulsa. As a result, there is an ever-increasing demand for high-quality bermudagrass hay.
The climate in the Southern Plains provides a good environment to support bermudagrass production. However, there are a few management practices worth discussing that will ensure you are producing the high-quality hay the horse industry demands.
First, producing a high-valued bermudagrass crop demands a high level of fertilizer input. Therefore, always soil test to determine what nutrients may be deficient. Nitrogen is responsible for increasing yield, but it is also associated with crude protein; as nitrogen rate increases, so does yield and crude protein. Since nitrogen is so important, be certain that both phosphorus and potassium are sufficient. For example, if phosphorus is extremely deficient (soil test P < 10 pounds/acre), you may only recover 50 to 60 percent of the yield expected from the nitrogen applied.
Second, to ensure you are producing weed-free bermudagrass hay, a herbicide application will likely be needed. It is critical to scout your fields for encroaching weeds in early spring and after each cutting. Proper weed identification is required in order to know the right herbicide to use. There are several good references available for weed identification, both as books and on the Internet. The Noble Research Institute's Web site (www.noble.org) offers a Plant Image Gallery with quality pictures of common weeds found in the region. Timing of application is also important. Most annual weeds are easier to control when less than 4 inches in height. Always read and follow herbicide label directions.
Lastly, by now you have invested a large amount of inputs and management that can easily be lost if the stand is not harvested at the proper time. Figure 1 explains the relationship among plant maturity, quality and yield at harvest. If cut too early (Phase I), quality and palatability will be extremely high, but the dry matter yield per acre will be low. If cut too late (Phase III), quality will rapidly decline though dry matter yield per acre increases. The optimum time to harvest horse-quality bermudagrass hay is Phase II. Both quality and yield are maximized at this stage. A good rule of thumb is to harvest hybrid bermuda-grass varieties (i.e., Coastal, Tifton 85, Midland 99) on a three- to four-week schedule. Common bermudagrass matures quicker and should be harvested closer to every three weeks. Of course, the weather does impact the speed of plant maturity.
Implementing these three management practices will allow you to produce two to four tons of dry matter bermudagrass per acre with 9 to 14 percent crude protein and 55 to 60 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN). The amount you produce per acre will depend on the intensity of management, variety, fertilizer inputs and moisture availability. However, you can control hay quality by cutting at the right stage of maturity.