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Growing Grass: Alterative forages weighed

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April 5, 2012 - When Coastal Bermudagrass was released in 1943, cattle and hay raisers believed they had found the perfect grass for their needs. Coastal turned out to be highly productive with better drought tolerance and quick responses to fertilizer and irrigation. It was also tolerant of grazing and mowing, and became the most widely-planted Bermudagrass in the southern United States and Texas.

Larry Redmon, state forage specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension, said that a lot of people who grew the grass never wanted to grow anything else after it was introduced.

"That was supposed to be everything -- the only grass you would ever want to grow," he said at a recent forage clinic. "What you didn't know was that you had entered into a lifetime contract with your fertilizer dealer. It's still a wonderful grass, but it still has to be fertilized."

The record-high fertilizer prices of recent years has led some producers to take a second look at Coastal, but also at some other grasses that they might have once considered weeds, but now view as something they might want to encourage. Bahiagrass and kleingrass are two that Redmond mentioned. Though not native to the state, both grasses do relatively well here, he said.

"We've been trying to kill bahiagrass right and left, but now we're taking another look at it. It's not as drought-tolerant as Coastal and doesn't produce as much feed, but you don't have to fertilize it," he said. "It's the same way with kleingrass. I had somebody once tell me they fertilize it (kleingrass) once every 10 years, whether it needs it or not."

An estimated million acres of Texas land has bahiagrass growing on it. Studies have shown that under the right conditions it does well over most of the state. Gerald Evers has experimented with bahiagrass at Overton, in East Texas, and foud it did best south of the Lufkin/Crockett area. North of that, the soils are too sandy and the region is too drought prone for good production.

A report that Redmon prepared in 2001, found several characteristics that make bahiagrass a valuable pasture grass, including it tolerance of a wider range of soils.

"Bahiagrass tolerates a wider range of soils than does Bermudagrass or dallisgrass," he wrote. "Compared with hybrid bermudagrass, bahiagrass tends to green up earlier and remain green longer in the fall, but lacks the drought tolerance of the bermudagrass on deep sandy soils. Bahiagrass is resistant to weed encroachment due to an extremely thick thatch formed, and tolerates close, continuous grazing better than most other grasses."

Now, as producers are either operating in the aftermath of a record drought or enjoying a pause in it -- depending on how much rain falls the rest of the year and when -- pastures need a little extra tender loving care, whether they have bermuda pastures of something else.

Redmon recommends paying special attention to weeds and insects, which thrive on conditions that most of the state has had this winter and spring, and removing winter pastures before the warm-up and emergence of warm season grasses and weeds. He said to give the warm season grasses a chance to soak up sunshine and moisture, instead of being shaded out by winter grasses and weeds.

"Usually our winter annuals aren't that bad," he said. "This year we have to treat for winter weeds, too."

Weather forecasts suggest that conditions will improve over much of the state this spring, though West and South Texas are expected to be drier than normal. Even in areas that have enjoyed good winter and spring rains, the impact of last year's drought can still be seen in the state's pastures.

"It was dry enough to kill cedar in the Edwards Plateau," he noted. "It was definitely dry enough to kill your pasture. I think all pastures could benefit from a littler fertilizer this spring, but only after you get a soil test to determine how much you need. Fertilizer still isn't cheap. It's not how much rain you get but how much you trap. If you keep grass in the pasture, you keep your nutrients and you keep your topsoil."

Those factors, along with uncertainty about what kind of weather will be in store for Texas this summer, has Redmon recommending against restocking herds that were either sold or reduced during the drought.

"I still think it's better to remain destocked, maintain a reduced stocking rate or consider other restrictions. Regardless of what happens in the short-term, drought management has to be part of an overall management plan," he said. "If your stocking rate is down to a rate you can handle during a drought and still leave half of your forage, leave it right there."


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