Bermudagrass Stands Up to Heavy Grazing

9/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Delaware Correspondent

Warm-Season Grass Among Topics at Upcoming UMES Workshop



Winter hardy varieties of bermudagrass can offer a boon to farmers battling erosion on land that is over-grazed.

Bermudagrass, while new to this area, is a warm-season grass particularly well suited to the climatic conditions and soils of the mid-Atlantic region.

Farmers who manage pasture land can learn more about it at an upcoming workshop and tour at University of Maryland Eastern Shore from 9:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29.

The morning session will include a lecture in the Food Science and Technology Building. The afternoon session will provide hands-on activity on the UMES farm. Don Ball, Extension agronomist and professor emeritus at Auburn University, is the keynote speaker.

Workshop topics will focus on year-round rotational grazing for livestock and horses and utilizing tall fescue and bermudagrass in conjunction with sericea lespedeza, which shows promise for managing intestinal parasite burdens in sheep and goats.

“In the south, where bermudagrass has been used for many years, it is overseeded with cereal rye, annual rye grass and crimson or arrow leaf clover that will produce over the winter when the bermuda is dormant,” said Les Vough, forage agronomist for Southern Maryland RC&D.

The hardiness of this species makes it suitable for heavy-use areas and small acreages. Vough recently inspected a demonstration planting during a field day at Clarksville. The small patch, used to graze a horse, had very heavy use, yet it was like walking on a carpet, he said. This makes bermudagrass useful for most livestock — horses, beef and small ruminants, such as sheep and goats — even alpacas.

Bermudagrass is typical of southern pastures. Vough said that in the past, the northern boundary for even the hardiest species was considered to be U.S. Route 70. Now there are some varieties that will survive as far north as southern Pennsylvania.

He knows from personal experience. About five or six years ago, when researchers became interested in conducting winter hardiness tests, he took some to his brother’s farm in Somerset County, Pa.

“Not only has it survived, it’s thrived,” he said. “The initial demonstration plots were planted on the Eastern Shore south of Salisbury and now we have a demo at UMES where we are trying to demonstrate a year-round grazing system.”

Field tests have shown that combining tall fescue for fall-winter production and bermudagrass for the summer growing season works well. Properly maintained, fescue will prevent bermudagrass intrusions. Bermudagrass begins to green in mid- to late April and starts slowing down in September. It turns brown with the first frost.

“A major concern in using bermudagrass for pasture is that it may spread to areas where we don’t want it. It’s a sod-forming grass similar to wiregrass, so it does spread,” he said. “If you don’t want it to spread into unwanted places, there are species — like fescue — that it will not invade.”

By maintaining a tall cutting height of fescue adjacent to plantings of bermudagrass — say, 5 to 6 inches mowing height — fescue will contain it. “Don’t mow it real short and don’t allow livestock to overgraze,” he said.

“Over the last five to six years, we’ve put out demonstrations across the state of Maryland and are now going back to evaluate the plantings,” he said.

Another advantage of bermudagrass is that it is a heavy nitrogen user, so it takes up the nutrients from manure reducing excess nitrogen run-off from other farming operations. It is also drought tolerant and works great to provide forage where fescue does not perform well.

Nelson Escobar, a UMES small ruminant production and management Extension specialist, said that sericea lespedeza — another forage plant that will be discussed at the workshop — does the reverse, drawing nitrogen from the air and returning it to the soil.

Vough said that he’s worked with a farmer in southern Maryland growing 25 acres of bermudagrass for hay that feeds horses in the winter.

“He’s been mowing about every three to four weeks if there is adequate moisture. He bales it for hay as you would alfalfa or orchardgrass,” Vough said.

There are two types of bermudagrass: seeded and vegetative-propagated. The vegetative-propagated or sprigged varieties have been the best performers. One turf variety for heavy grazing or mowing to encourage sod formation is Quickstand.

Quickstand is dual purpose, Vough said. It is not only good for sod formation, but also produces more forage than most other turf types. It is used to reduce erosion in heavy use areas, particularly around a barn with sloping land.

“Without a ground cover, when it rains you lose soil and nutrients” he said, “and this variety will withstand close grazing, even sheep.”

The other variety he and his colleagues have been working with, Ozark, is better suited for hay production. The varieties produced for hay are more upright and do not perform as well under heavy grazing conditions.

Agronomists have tried for years to change pasture management practices on small operations because most grass species will not provide any soil stabilization if it is grazed to within a half inch. Patches they have planted in places like Cecil County, that wouldn’t even grow good weeds, are now flourishing.

“Bermudagrass is much better suited to our marginal soils than orchardgrass, even in soils where we have not been able to maintain fescue,” he said.

It also has the best chance of surviving sheep grazing. A demonstration plot planted in Baltimore County this spring has done very well. The closer the grass is mowed or grazed, the better.

“Mowing close or hard grazing removes the competition from undesirable weeds,” Vough said.

Early on, Vough planted a demonstration plot on a steep hillside to give it the best chance of survival, thinking that it would not be heavily grazed.

“The cows have eaten it right down to the ground,” he said. “Coupled with Kentucky bluegrass, it provides year-round forage. It does not encroach into the bluegrass, only the bare spots.”

The next stage of testing will be to plant demonstration plots featuring several varieties side-by-side in order to compare them.

Currently, there is no local supplier of Quickstand; it has to be shipped in from Indiana. Ozark comes from the Carolinas. Patriot, a bermudagrass turf type, is grown locally and provides good cover but not so much forage, Vough said. It is used for athletic field coverage and can grow in moderate climates as far north as New Jersey. Patriot is available at some local sod farms, such as Oakwood Sod Farm in Delmar, Md.

Other workshop sessions will address the grazing behavior of ruminants, camelids, bovines and equines, and the promising use of forage, including sericea lespedeza, to manage parasites in ruminants.

For more information about the New Concepts in Pasture and Grazing Management for Livestock and Horse Owners Workshop, contact Kayla Parmar at 410-651-6070 or kjparmar<\@>

To register, visit Registration is $15 per person and covers lunch and educational materials.

Workshop sponsors include University of Maryland Extension, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Small Farm Outreach Program and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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