Clemson offers tips for choosing the right forage for hay production
BLACKVILLE — When it comes to selecting a forage for hay production, one size does not fit all.
Bermudagrass is the gold standard for South Carolina hay production, but specific variety selection can greatly impact profits, said Clemson University forage specialist John Andrae. An entirely different species could be better for some growers, he said. Soil type and drainage, environment, grower-management preferences and end use are important factors in choosing a forage species — and specific species variety — for hay production, he said.
“A lot of these things are considered too late,” Andrae told growers at the Clemson University Hay Production Workshop and Field Day at the Edisto Research and Education Center.
South Carolina produced $70.8 million in hay last year, making it the state’s third largest cash crop behind corn ($96.7 million) and soybeans ($90.6 million) in production value, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“Hay is a cash crop and it’s an important crop from both supporting our livestock industry and from a sales standpoint,” Andrae said.
“Hay species and variety selection are critical to success. The big key is to find out who you are selling to and what your management style is and key to that. Another critical factor is to take into account what you already have. The first question to ask is ‘what’s already there?’”
Old fields of Coastal bermudagrass, for example, could be brought back into productivity with proper management for weeds, pests and fertility. Establishing a new field with a modern hybrid like Tifton 85, however, will be harder, more expensive and slower to accomplish because it requires more tillage and investment.
Soil and environment
Bermudagrass does not thrive in soils that do not drain water. In poorly drained areas, alternative species like bahiagrass or nontoxic tall fescue can be considered.
Cold hardiness needs to be considered as well, particularly for South Carolina growers in the Upstate where winters get cold. Hybrids such as Tifton 44, Midlands 99 and Ozark are more cold-hardy than other varieties and will persist throughout the state. Coastal and Russell perform well in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain if planted on appropriate soil types. Tifton 85 is best suited for the southern Piedmont and Coastal Plain.
These hybrids do not produce seed, but seed-producing types are available for growers without planters. Seeded bermudagrass is cheaper than the hybrids — maybe even a third of the cost — but their lower yields, occasional issues with disease resistance and lack of options for weed control make them risky, Andrae said.
“Are you going to invest in inputs or are you just happy harvesting whatever Mothern Nature gives you?” Andrae asked participants at the Hay Production Workshop. “This also dictates what forage species are options for your operation.”
Certain forage species require more fertilizer for productivity or herbicides for weed control, Andrae said. Bermudagrass, for example, needs plenty of nitrogen or yield declines quickly. Alfalfa requires strict attention to soil pH and nutrient levels and must be harvested in a timely manner.
“If you are willing to add lime, potash and weed control to your field, you have a lot of options,” Andrae said. “If you want to do low input or can’t afford to add fertilizers, your options are more limited. If you have a year-to-year contract on your hay lease, it’s hard to justify putting out lime much less converting an existing species in the field because you just don’t know if you will be harvesting the same acreage year after year.”
Bahiagrass and mixed fields of fescue, crabgrass, common bermudagrass and dallisgrass can be grown with fewer inputs, but sales price and market options are often limited.
Consider the end use or buyer
Dairies, equine operations and even zoos often buy high-quality hay and may pay a premium for something like alfalfa, but most producers sell their hay to beef cattle producers who often want fair quality at an affordable price.
“Alfalfa can fit for people willing to utilize a high level of management and inputs. It has high fertility requirements but is extremely drought-tolerant. Mostly alfalfa is higher quality than beef producers normally need anyway,” Andrae said. “The specific market you target will dictate what you produce.”
If you are growing forage for personal use on your livestock farm and are considering a seeded bermudagrass, a modern bahiagrass variety like Tifton or TifQuick are options, Andrae said. These grow quickly, affordably and easily in hot climates but often do not sell well.
“It’s seeded and it works on poorly drained soil better than bermudagrass,” Andrae said. “Tifton 9 bahiagrass has a 25 percent higher yield than other bahiagrass varieties and it’s 10 percent more digestible than Pensacola. This Tifton 9 is a real option for a personal, cow-calf operation.”
The Hay Production Workshop and Field Day also included presentations from Clemson experts on hay fertility, weed and insect pressures and control options, precision agriculture technologies that can help growers maximize yields and tips for correctly calibrating pesticide sprayers.