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Successfully Establishing Warm-Season Forages

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Publication Number: P2838
View as PDF: P2838.pdf

Warm-season grasses can greatly complement cool-season grass pastures in a rotation and are highly palatable forages for livestock. There are approximately 1.73 million acres of warm-season forages produced in Mississippi. These systems include bermudagrass (769,599 acres), bahiagrass (903,157 acres), and summer annuals (59,312 acres).

These grasses initiate growth in late April or early May and produce 65–75 percent of their growth from mid-June to mid-August. These warm-season grasses are highly palatable when harvested at the correct growth stage or when grazed rotationally. Over the years, many warm-season grasses have gotten the reputation that they are not as nutritious as cool-season grasses. In most cases, this reputation has come from poorer performance of cattle grazing in summer and from a misunderstanding of how to properly manage these grasses to reduce fiber content.

One of the drawbacks of warm-season grasses is that the cost of establishment often becomes a concern with high seed prices (Tables 1 and 2). If a producer is willing to undertake the obstacles of establishing and managing these types of grasses, the benefits can be tremendous. Many perennial summer grasses can produce an average of 2–3 tons of forage per acre. With intensive management, bermudagrass and bahiagrass can produce much more (Figure 1). On average, you can expect to support one cow per acre during the summer months when using the proper rotational grazing scheme.

Establishing a pasture or hay field is a key step in having a thick, lush, and profitable stand. Following are several steps to successfully establishing warm-season forages.

Bahiagrass, 6475; bermudagrass (hybrid), 8764; bermudagrass (seeded), 6730; crabgrass, 2934; millets, 3858; sorghum/sudangrass, 5236; teffgrass, 3499.
Figure 1. Average production of different warm-season grasses in Mississippi.
Table 1a. Estimated average seed cost per acre for establishment of bahiagrass.*

Bahiagrass species

Seeding rate (lb/ac)

Cost $/lb

Cost $/ac

Argentine

20

4.15

82.93

Pensacola

20

3.42

68.40

TifQuik

20

6.78

135.53

Tifton 9

20

4.98

99.50

UF-Riata

20

5.00

100.00

 

Table 1b. Estimated average seed cost per acre for establishment of hybrid Bermudagrass.*

Hybrid Bermudagrass species

Seeding rate (lb/ac)

Cost $/lb

Cost $/ac

Tifton 44

40 bu

110.00

Tifton 85

40 bu

110.00

Sumrall 007

40 bu

110.00

Alicia

40 bu

110.00

 

Table 1c. Estimated average seed cost per acre for establishment of seeded Bermudagrass.*

Seeded Bermudagrass species

Seeding rate (lb/ac)

Cost $/lb

Cost $/ac

Cheyenne II

10

11.18

111.77

Common (hulled)

10

6.75

67.50

Common (unhulled)

10

5.42

54.17

Cowboy

10

9.00

90.00

Giant

10

9.43

94.33

Laredo

10

8.00

80.00

Mohawk

10

7.57

75.67

Pasto Rico

10

6.37

63.70

Ranchero Frio

10

9.28

92.80

Sahara

10

4.70

47.00

Sungrazer+

10

8.00

80.00

Texas Tough

10

9.50

95.00

Wrangler

10

6.38

63.80

 

Table 1d. Estimated average seed cost per acre for establishment of lespedeza.*

Lespedeza species

Seeding rate (lb/ac)

Cost $/lb

Cost $/ac

AU Grazer

30

7.20

216.00

Korean (hulled)

30

5.95

178.50

Korean (unhulled)

30

2.96

88.80

Sericea (hulled)

30

5.90

177.00

Sericea (unhulled)

30

4.75

142.50

*For Tables 1a–d, establishment cost does not include fertilizer, land preparation, herbicides, and labor. Prices may vary by region.

 

Table 2a. Estimated average seed cost per acre for establishment of crabgrass.*

Crabgrass species

Seeding rate (lb/ac)

Cost $/lb

Cost $/ac

Quick-N-Big

10

11.20

112.00

Red River

10

11.20

112.00

 

Table 2b. Estimated average seed cost per acre for establishment of millet.*

Millet species

Seeding rate (lb/ac)

Cost $/lb

Cost $/ac

Brown Top

30

1.00

30.00

German Foxtail

30

1.04

31.20

Japanese

30

1.08

32.40

Pearl

30

1.16

34.80

Proso

30

0.90

26.85

 

Table 2c. Estimated average seed cost per acre for establishment of Sudangrass.*

Sorghum/sudangrass species

Seeding rate (lb/ac)

Cost $/lb

Cost $/ac

BMR sorghum sudan

30

1.08

32.40

Milo or grain sorghum

30

0.44

13.20

Piper sudangrass

30

1.04

31.20

ProMax BMR Hybrid Sudangrass

30

1.72

51.60

Red Top Forage Sorghum Hybrid

30

1.12

33.60

Sorghum Sudan Hybrid (Spec. Effort)

30

0.80

24.00

 

Table 2d. Estimated average seed cost per acre for establishment of Teffgrass.*

Teffgrass species

Seeding rate (lb/ac)

Cost $/lb

Cost $/ac

Tiffany Teff (coated)

10

3.77

37.67

Tiffany Teff (uncoated)

10

3.84

38.40

*For Tables 2a–d, establishment cost does not include fertilizer, land preparation, herbicides, and labor. Prices may vary by region.​

Nutrient Management

An excellent stand begins with good soil preparation. The first step is to obtain an accurate soil sample and improve soil conditions accordingly. Do this 6 months before you plan to plant. Apply lime and fertilizer according to soil test recommendations. Lime should be applied 6 months before planting, while phosphorous and potassium can be applied at planting time. New pastures or hay fields will benefit from an application of nitrogen at 3–4 weeks after planting. In the case of sprigged hybrid bermudagrass, nitrogen should not be applied until 40 days after planting to help increase the number of runners and increase canopy cover. Successive applications of fertilizer will prolong the life and improve the performance of the new stand.

Good Seedbed Preparation

Most warm-season forages require a well-prepared and firm seedbed because some species tend to have poor germination. Planting depth is also an important component of successful establishment. Large-seeded forage crops such as sorghum can be planted deeper than small-seeded forages such as common bermudagrass or teffgrass. A nonselective herbicide to reduce competition might be necessary if you use a no-till drill. These species should be planted from late April to late June or from late August to early September (bahiagrass and bermudagrass only and when there is no late intended use of the pasture). Hybrid bermudagrass is not recommended to be sprigged past mid-August. Check with your local Extension office for the best seeding times in your area to ensure a successful planting.

Species Selection and Seed Quality

Select species that are suitable for the desired yield and persistence based on soil, nutrients, environmental conditions, and intended use (Tables 1 and 2). After you have determined what forage species to plant, purchase a variety that will meet the needs of your intended use. It is important to buy high-quality seed—“bargain” or “cheap” seeds often are not high quality.

Pay attention to the germination percentage and purity of the seed. A quality warm-season seed has more than 70 percent germination and 90 percent purity. Certified seed must have this information on the seed label. If buying seed in bulk from your local co-op, always request this information. Sowing poor-quality seed may require re-seeding, which doubles the expense and could cause a loss in yield potential during the establishment year. It is also important to note that seeds might have a coating, which could account for up to 34 percent of the seed weight. It is important to account for seed coating when calculating seeding rate. For example, let’s say that teffgrass is recommended to be planted at 8 pounds per acre. The cost of raw/uncoated seed is $3.84 per pound. The seed cost per acre will be $30.72. If the seed contains 34 percent coating, the seeding rate increases to 11 pounds per acre. The coated seed cost is $3.77 per pound. Now the seed cost per acre is $41.47.

Maintenance

Do not make the mistake of heavily grazing newly established summer forages under the hot and humid conditions in Mississippi. A newly seeded pasture should not be grazed until the plants reach at least 10–12 inches in height, and should be grazed no lower than 3 inches, to keep a vegetative stage of growth. They should be grazed only lightly between early July and late August. This newly seeded stand will not have a very well-developed root system, so it will be pulled out of the ground very easily by the livestock. A rotational grazing management approach should be used to avoid overgrazing and provide the proper rest to the stand. This keeps all the forage at the same uniform, palatable stage of growth, and helps to control many weeds by keeping them from flowering and producing seed. Hay should not be cut until plants have reached 15 inches in height, and nitrogen should be provided with each cut of hay.

After establishment, pH and fertilizer levels need to be maintained in the stand. Get a soil test every 2–3 years in pastures and every year in hay fields. Yearly soil testing in hay fields is recommended because large amounts of nutrients (especially potassium) are exported with each cut of hay and not replenished adequately. If the pastures do not contain 30–40 percent legumes, a yearly application of nitrogen fertilizer is necessary to maintain and feed the grasses. Applications of nitrogen at a rate of 60–80 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre per year are ideal. Apply this nitrogen in split applications of 30–40 pounds at green-up and in midsummer. Hay fields should receive phosphorous and potassium based on soil test recommendations, and 50 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre per cut of hay.

Warm-season perennial grasses establish relatively slowly, but once established and properly managed, the stand can last many years. An important management procedure is to give them a rest at the end of their grazing period and before the first frost. This helps build their root reserves as they go into winter. A prescribed burn, although not a requirement, is suggested every 3–4 years for some species to clean out biomass accumulation and promote new growth. These burns must be timed in the early spring when biomass residue is at about 1–2 inches.

Table 3a. Seedling vigor and tolerance of annual warm-season grasses to site characteristics and grazing pressure.

Annual warm-season species

Seedling1 vigor

Soil acidity

Poor drainage

Drought

Grazing pressure

Crabgrass

G

G

P

F

E

Lespedeza

F

E

F

G

G

Pearl millet

E

E

P

E

F

Sorghum

G

P

P

E

F

Sorghum-sudan

E

P

F

G

F

 

Table 3b. Seedling vigor and tolerance of perennial warm-season grasses to site characteristics and grazing pressure.

Perennial warm-season species

Seedling1 vigor

Soil acidity

Poor drainage

Drought

Grazing pressure

Bahiagrass

P

E

G

E

E

Bermudagrass

F

E

P

E

E

Dallisgrass

P

F

E

G

G

Johnsongrass

G

F

E

G

P

1For Tables 3a and 3b, seedling vigor is the potential for rapid uniform emergence and development of normal seedlings under a wide range of environmental conditions. E = Excellent; G = Good; F = Fair; P = Poor. Source: Ball et al., 2002.

References

Ball, D.M., C.S. Hoveland & G.D. Lacefield. 2002. Southern Forages: Modern Concepts for Forage Crop Management. 3rd ed. International Plant Nutrition Institute, Norcross, GA.


The information given here is for educational purposes only. References to commercial products, trade names, or suppliers are made with the understanding that no endorsement is implied and that no discrimination against other products or suppliers is intended.

Publication 2838 (POD-08-23)

By Rocky Lemus, PhD, Extension/Research Professor, Plant and Soil Sciences.

Department: Plant and Soil Sciences
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Authors

Portrait of Dr. Rocky Lemus
Extension/Research Professor
Forage Establishment, Grazing Systems and Management, Hay Production, Forage Fertility, Forage Quali