Written by Lindsay Haymes
Bermuda grass hay has become a product of interest for producers looking to increase hay yield in the hot summer months. The Quality Forage program out of northwest Arkansas led by University of Arkansas Extension Agent Robert Seay, has prompted regional producers to take Bermuda hay to a new level. With quality topping relative feed value scores of 100, Seay believes with the right methods, bermuda hay can be a viable option for regional producers looking to get the most out of their pastures and their hay crop.
The Quality Forage Program was born out of a good idea from a group of hay producers in northwest Arkansas. “We brainstormed in 1997, and got off the ground in 1998. We had a few guys in northwest Arkansas doing pretty well with their Bermuda hay quality and they’d won consecutive awards at the Arkansas Cattlemen’s hay contest.”
Producers began sitting down together, “talking shop,” as Seay put it, and sharing production and harvest tips and techniques. The Quality Forage Program developed an open relationship between regional hay producers. The group focused on quality forage, and addressed annual problems as they arose in the hayfield, from bugs to weather to fertilizer methods.
“Then our state forage specialist encouraged us to enter the American Forage and Grassland Council’s (AFGC) contest held each year in conjunction with their annual meeting,” Seay explained.
So producers from this area entered in 2001 with their 2000 hay crop. (The contest lags a year behind harvest.) With hay contests, Seay said, producers have to plan ahead, to hold enough hay back to meet the criteria.
“You really don’t know how good or bad you are till you start playing with the big boys,” Seay said. “We had a tremendous run of fortune, as far as the contest aspect goes. With AFGC entries, judging is based on visual quality, lab analysis, presence of weeds, etc.”
For nine consecutive years, hay from the Ozarks came out on top. Seay recognized this as a marketing opportunity, as did the hay producers, who had hay buyers calling.
The QF Program’s contests are based on relative feed value (RFV) scores. Amazingly, Seay has seen many producers achieve Bermuda hay with RFV scores of 100. “Producers started knocking the bottom out of the net with the highest hitting 140 RFV to date. Bermuda hay with an RFV score of 85 is really good, but now the quality being achieved is so much higher.”
The RFV standard has worked out very well in the QF program. They started “The 100 Club,” and any producer who can manage to package bermuda hay with an RFV of 100 becomes an automatic member. “We have 75 or 80 producers who’ve managed to do that,” Seay said.
“This has been across Arkansas, not just in Benton County, all the way to the River Valley, north central Arkansas, Northeast Oklahoma and Southwest Missouri. Basically, once a pattern gets set, producers see what it takes to package good hay, and we continue to see excellent results from all across the area. People travel here for our annual meeting, which this year falls on March 6, 2010. This meeting of the minds continues to pay off for regional producers.
Hay Season Problems
Every hay producer knows each year varies in the hay field. There’s the years when rainfall is more of an enemy than a friend, like last year, Seay remembered. “That really affects the market for a quality hay product. People who want to buy a quality hay product, want it to smell like quality hay should smell. Horse producers are especially finicky." But, with advancements in hay production, technology might be helping some. Seay mentioned different types of hay conditioners and preservatives, that cure in the bale. This allows producers to control the quality of their product.
“If producers want repeat business, they have to deliver a quality product. Hay preservatives allow us to bale hay a little more damp than we normally would. Bermuda hay that’s a little more damp will stay in the windrow a lot better. You can windrow more hay. It’s odd tricks of the trade people learn from experience,” Seay said.
The varieties desired have changed over time. And the desired variety for a producer will also vary based on the needs of the pastures as well. “The Greenfield variety is very common, it’s been around 55 years or so. It’s the single variety that’s won nine consecutive national contests for us. When we talk quality, we talk Greenfield and work down. But now, with fertilizer in the picture, if a producer is going into hay production, they really should look at hybrids. Any of the hybrids will produce 1/3 more than Greenfield off the same fertilizer input. Also, if a person’s looking at bermuda hay for the long haul, and if they’re going in from scratch, use a variety with that type of efficiency. The downside of bermuda grass, you can’t go kill it out and start over very fast.
Early Management is Key
“The thing that we’ve always said is bermuda grass has to be managed similar to a racehorse. To get a quick jump out of the starting blocks, you better have it clean and ready to go," Seay said.
Bermuda grass is a warm season grass, and it’s really not going to do much until night temperatures reach 60 degrees. While bermuda grass is dormant producers need to clean their field off, eliminate everything that’s green, Seay said. Bermuda grass is the weakest kid on the block. Anything that competes with it for sunlight, moisture or fertility serves to weaken it. It’s a plant that loves full sunlight.
So preparation is key. Seay noted that by April, when bermuda’s getting ready to bust out, it really wants full access to every ray of sunlight. “And a mid-March roundup application will jump start getting it kicked off, so it can provide it’s own competition. It will become aggressive and that will go a long way in controlling weeds and keep it ahead of the game.”
Seay noted he’s seeing more and more people cutting back on nitrogen and potassium. “If you’re cutting back, it’s even more imperative you get the most out of your fertilizer dollar and the best way is to keep competition down. Bermuda grass doesn't need to compete for fertilizer, sunlight or moisture.”
The good thing about bermuda? You treat it well, it will treat you well, Seay says. “Bermuda grass is very responsive. If you do something favorable for it, in a day or two’s time you can see it respond.”
Seay encouraged producers to maintain their production practices, including soil samples. “I’m just now completing a review of forage soil samples from last year. Fertilizer conditions are getting to be the pits, so producers have backed off fertilizing. We’ve milked out a lot of fertilizer, Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Phosphate. All these missing nutrients impact hay volume and quality. “We don’t have enough producers soil testing, for the purpose of managing forages. We don't have the fertility build up that we’ve grown accustomed to for decades. We’ve exhausted that out of hay fields. We’ve borrowed too long from them, and the piper’s going to have to be paid in some form or fashion.”
Not Your Average Hay
“The first time a producer starts working with bermuda grass, it’s a different animal. They have to change haying patterns, change the speed they operate at certain times of the year. It’s like alfalfa, if they don’t pick up that leaf, they’re leaving quality on the field,” Seay said.
With bermuda grass, Seay noted, by July and August, common varieties begin to lose size and volume, and a lot of bermuda grass gets left on the field. Hybrids are taller with more bulk to them, and are easier to hay than common types, especially in summer, when common types shorten up.
"Look at the quality of hay analysis, and you’ll know if the right equipment is being used to ensure they’re picking up as much of the leaf as possible. Different types of rakes, pickup reels – some are more conducive to bermuda," he said.
The 2010 Program
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