Written by Jules Miller, OFN Contributor
Bermuda grass hay producer Paul E. Arnold has quality production down to a science.
And farmers nationwide are taking notice that producers like Paul – recently recognized as the top warm-season grass producer at the American Forage and Grassland Council’s National Hay Show – are making Northwest Arkansas home to the nation’s best Bermuda hay.
“It takes management, like anything else,” explained Paul, who also was named grower of the year by the AFGC three years running: 2007, 2008 and 2009. “You gotta be on top of the weeds and have good cutting intervals to get a good, quality Bermuda hay. To do that takes a lot of fertilizer to get the growth, tonnage and quality out if it, I found out. You gotta keep on top of the weeds.”
Producers like Paul have long given Benton County a reputation as the Bermuda capitol of the South. Arkansas Quality Forage producers from Northwest Arkansas have won 35 of the 38 AFGC Bermuda hay awards, said Robert Seay, Benton County extension agent for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. That enables extension agents to promote Northwest Arkansas as home to the nation's best Bermuda hay.
On The Homestead
Paul’s homestead has about 40 acres of pastureland for his 50 head of Black Angus and mixed cattle, and he uses 15 of those acres for Bermuda and mixed grasses. He then leases more than 300 acres in Arkansas and Missouri for Bermuda hay that he and his two brothers, Jess and John, sometimes work together. Paul relies on cool-season grasses like fescue, orchard and native grasses and some wheat for grazing the remainder of the year.
Paul was reared on a 40-acre family farm with a few dairy cows that his parents had in the Pea Ridge area. His father’s family settled in the area in the early 1900s, and farming was the life they embraced. Paul’s childhood memories are of chickens, pigs and Holstein and Jersey mixes on his parents’ farm. His love of dairying led him to start his own farm in 1977. “I just liked being around the dairy cows, and I just enjoyed being out on the farm.”
His first experiments with Bermuda hay came in 1989 when he was looking to extend tonnage and summertime grazing. He had been using alfalfa, but “cows can’t graze Alfalfa like they can Bermuda. That’s when I went to Bermuda, because of the management and grazing that it offered in the hot summertime. … Then came the changes with the population – the horse owners primarily – and Bermuda worked out good for everyone around here, I guess.”
Paul sold his dairy operation and went to work for the local farmers’ cooperative. But he soon learned he had a gift for growing quality Bermuda grass hay, and he returned to farming in 2003. He began commercially fertilizing Bermuda fields for several farmers throughout the region and worked on refining his technique while promoting the benefits of Bermuda.
“Bermuda used to be a golf course grass, but it comes out to be a good quality grass if you take care of it,” Paul said. “I use it on background and weaning calves, and it really works well. A good quality Bermuda can feed all you want for calves, and they won't scour like with Alfalfa. That’s the advantage. It works well for calves when weaning and background them, and it works well for horses and goats, as well.”
Hay Secrets Revealed
While Paul won’t give away all his management secrets, he says he starts off by putting Roundup, or a generic version of the product, down in the spring to burn off the weeds and other foreign matter that have accumulated. He adds a wetting agent, about a pint per acre, then adds a liquid fertilizer, like32-0-0 liquid nitrogen, then adds liquid potash, like 0-0-25, plus sulfur to get the root system going on the Bermuda.
In late March or early April, he begins the tactical assault before the Bermuda comes out of dormancy. If weeds like crabgrass continue the fight, he’ll add a product like 2-4D product or Cimarron max with a pre-emergent. Generally, there are no weeds the first of June, but he noted, that doesn’t hold true all the time.
He’ll put down 80 units of nitrogen and a stabilizer like Guardian. If all goes well, he’ll make his first cut by the first week of June. After that, he hits the Bermuda with another 80 units of nitrogen and about 4 gallons of potash with each application. He’ll hit the acreage with crabgrass control in the form of Roundup, or its generic equivalent, and 2-4D. After a 10-day wait, he’ll walk the land to check for weeds, and then he gets back to the business of growing the best Bermuda hay he can.
With each cutting, Paul repeats his methodology until the beginning of August. That’s when he cuts back on his nitrogen applications. His process allows him to generate three to four cuttings of Bermuda hay per season. Each cutting also comes with an application of Pro-Serve III, which allows him to put his hay up and not ted as much. That saves him a couple of trips across the field, plus it holds the hay’s color a little better.
Paul's Bermuda hay methodology allows him to generate 10,000 small square bales of hay for his personal growing needs, plus enough to keep his 50 head of cattle and up to 50 new calves well-fed throughout the winter months. He'll sell off another 15,000 to 20,000 small square bales of hay.
For grazing purposes, Paul doesn’t put down as much fertilizer. “I still want to keep it clean, and I don’t want other grasses to take over too much.” In early fall when Bermuda slows down, then the fescue and orchard grasses will start to re-emerge. A mixed pasture of fescue, orchard and Bermuda grasses, Paul said, is what makes for good grazing.
"You gotta keep on top of it to produce good Bermuda grass.”
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