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Alfalfa for bermudagrass management in the South

Joe Bouton Published on 15 July 2015
interseeding alfalfa into a bermudagrass stand

Bermudagrass is the most persistent and dependable warm-season forage crop grown throughout the southern U.S., found from eastern Texas and Oklahoma across the region to the Atlantic Ocean, with nearly 28 million acres currently estimated to be utilized for both hay and grazing.

It has achieved this high standing in southern pastoral agriculture for some very simple reasons: It is persistent, dependable, widely adapted and high-yielding.

However, bermudagrass does have limitations; high amounts of nitrogen fertilizer are needed to achieve good yields, and its nutritional aspects as measured by relative feed quality (RFQ) and protein are moderate at best and low in many management situations.

How can one improve bermudagrass for these limitations without replacing the crop? Interseed alfalfa into the stand. It is the agricultural analogy of merging corporations in the business world with complementary strengths, but in this case, it is a merger of the major southern hay crop, bermudagrass, with the world’s major temperate hay crop, alfalfa.

UGA demo program

On-farm demonstrations promoted by University of Georgia’s (UGA) Forages Research and Extension programs of using alfalfa as a “tool” to overcome bermudagrass management and economic issues is now influencing more farmers to try this unique approach.

Here are the main “pieces of the puzzle” that the scientists realized before embarking on the program, or proved during the program, that ensured success:

  • Published background data: Research by Dr. Glenn Burton (Mr. Bermudagrass himself) in Georgia in the 1950s, and Drs. Bill Stringer (South Carolina) and Harold Brown (Georgia) in the 1980s, was successful with alfalfa’s nitrogen replacement value calculated at 200 pounds of N per acre per year (nitrogen replacement value = amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed for the monoculture grass to match the yield of the grass-alfalfa mixture).

  • Fundamental changes in production costs: Bermudagrass’s poor nutrition is generally overcome by supplementation. Supplements are now expensive. The grass’s need for high-nitrogen fertilizer was endured, but a 30-year increase in nitrogen prices (with volatility spikes) changed applications downward.

    Ironically, when soil fertility recommendations for pH and P and K fertilization are compared between excellent hybrid bermudagrass and alfalfa management, they are nearly identical for the same soil sample. It is bermudagrass’s need of high rates of nitrogen that is the biggest difference.

  • Fundamental changes in production gains: Predominant livestock operations in the Bermudagrass Belt are beef cattle, and producers examining current high cattle prices are realizing that increased live-weight gains achieved cheaply and efficiently on their own farms results in more economic return.

    Alfalfa-bermudagrass hay and baleage simply fits as a component of high-quality feeding systems.

  • Availability of adaptive varieties: A UGA forage breeding program adapted alfalfa varieties – notably, Alfagraze. Two newer varieties, Bulldog 505 and Bulldog 805, were released as fall dormant 5 and 8 varieties, respectively.

    These varieties possessed traits needed for the region, such as grazing tolerance and high resistance to nematode pests and leaf spot diseases. The program also worked collaboratively with Forage Genetics International to develop a Roundup Ready cultivar, Alfagraze 600RR, for farmers who wanted that particular trait.

  • Commercial partner: Not least in importance was commercial partnership with Athens Seed Company and the company’s willingness to supply seed of the UGA varieties to demo farmers at reduced cost – sometimes gratis.

  • Risk reduction: Since bermudagrass is the more persistent, when the alfalfa component of the mixture reduces naturally over time, or simply does not establish well, the producer still has bermudagrass and can proceed with his normal management.

  • “Demonstrable” results: The practical success of the demos were their demonstrable side-by-side comparisons to assess yield, nitrogen fertilizer applied, farmer testimonial on use of the final product, and most importantly, nutritive quality via feed reports of the bales produced.

    Typically, alfalfa-bermudagrass quality samples ranged from 150 to 240 RFQ and 20 to 24 percent protein compared with their straight bermudagrass counterparts of 80 to 120 RFQ and 10 to 14 percent protein.

  • Unexpected bonus: A bonus was the positive effect on seasonal yield distribution. Bermudagrass has a winter-dormant period that can range from 100 to 200 days depending on the region’s north-to-south geography.

    The mixture simply expands the growing season by increasing production on both the spring and fall ends of bermudagrass’s growing period.

Therefore, the UGA program of interseeding alfalfa into bermudagrass now has a proven management protocol for success and positive record as an “on-farm” management option, with many bermudagrass hay producers already experiencing the benefits of this management strategy.

A recent workshop held at UGA attracted many interested producers, further solidifying the perception that this approach now has legs in the “eastern part of the Bermudagrass Belt” as part of alfalfa’s resurgence in the South. UGA demo program

What was learned from the demos and what is the future?

There are key practical lessons learned from the UGA program that can be applied elsewhere:

  • Never plant into a site that has had Grazone or similar herbicides used in the past 12 months (hopefully, 18 months).

  • Adhere to the recommended management protocols; do not skip a step. This is critical during establishment and especially for soil pH and fertility with K and B re-application.

  • This system is primarily suited for hay and baleage; grazing can be practiced but in highly managed situations (short-term, rotational grazing in spring and fall).

  • Bermudagrass must be suppressed during establishment. Fall planting is easier because the grass naturally goes winter-dormant, but for late-winter or early spring seedings, bermudagrass needs to be suppressed via Poast or similar herbicides.

  • Do not give up on getting a stand; alfalfa seedling recovery is remarkable.

  • Control winter weeds during establishment on dormant bermudagrass. Using Roundup with the Roundup Ready varieties works well, but avoid Roundup during warm season so as not to harm bermudagrass.

Anchoring into the UGA program and using its key lessons as a template, the next step is now underway to move the demo program across the Bermudagrass Belt westward into eastern Texas and Oklahoma.

This program is being spearheaded by America’s Alfalfa (Got Bermudagrass) and will work with local forage extension forage specialists to establish on-farm demos in important bermudagrass-growing areas within respective states.

These demos also allow changes to the main management protocol based on local results and experiences.

In summary, everything is now in alignment for using more alfalfa in the South as far as varieties and management options are concerned. This is especially true for interseeding alfalfa into bermudagrass hay fields.  FG

PHOTO: With proper management, interseeding alfalfa into a bermudagrass stand has proven viable even in the Bermudagrass Belt and can improve relative feed quality and protein, reducing the need for feed supplementation. Photo courtesy of Joe Bouton.

Click here to read an article on Alfalfa in bermudagrass.

  • Joe Bouton

  • Professor Emeritus University of Georgia
  • Owner and Manager, Bouton Consulting Group LLC
  • Email Joe Bouton