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Pasture Forage

Selecting a Pasture Base: Bahiagrass vs. Bermudagrass

This time of year I receive a lot of calls regarding pasture renovation and the question arises about what species to plant as the warm-season, perennial pasture base for livestock in Central Florida. A perennial pasture should be a long-term commitment, you should intend to manage these forages so they have longevity over decades. These forages are marathon runners, not sprinters, they require great care and input initially in order to graze many animals over countless seasons for your operation.

What is best for my operation?

First, it is important to understand what forages will perform in hot, humid, and sometimes drought conditions with our soil types. Thankfully there is really only two options: bahiagrass or bermudagrass. These two grasses are built for our conditions and have the greatest durability if cared for properly. To determine which option is best for you, analyze the goals of your pasture; what type of animals are you grazing, how many animals you are grazing per acre, what are the soil conditions, and how much are you willing to manage this pasture are some questions you should start with. If you answered: horses, two per acre, somewhat acidic and poorly drained, and not wanting to invest too much on an annual basis, then bahiagrass is likely for you. If you answered that you are interested in utilizing a pasture to cut hay, the pH is above 6.0 and well drained, you intend to manage intensively to maintain the best hay quality, then a bermudagrass is probably best for that scenario. While these are merely two real-world applications, do not think you are limited to one option based on the type of livestock you own, cows and horses can graze both bahia and bermuda and do well, the choice depends on your level of involvement, what your production goals are, and the environmental conditions.

Bahiagrass– Generally speaking, bahiagrass is a fan favorite among livestock owners for pasture due to its low input style, meaning it can do quite well with little fertilizer and management (to a point). Bahiagrass can also tolerate being grazed more severely than bermudagrass, a frequent incident with horses. The growing season tends to be longer with bahiagrass so forage is available earlier in the spring and later into the fall as compared to bermudagrass, but overall forage production is less. This forage is going to be tough to beat as the pasture base for many livestock operations in Central Florida.

Bermudagrass needs greater inputs of fertilizer to perform to its potential, and if given the needed nutrients will be hard to beat in biomass production, it is very responsive to added nutrients. In fact, we can stop right here if you are not intending to provide the frequent nutrient needs in a timely manner you will not reap the benefits of this forage and the economics of choosing this forage will be poor. Bermudagrass is definitely king when it comes to hay production in the Southeast and is used as a grazing strategy in beef cattle systems due to its productivity and quality. Environment and topography can become a limiting factor, bermudagrass needs a well-drained soil and does not do well with “wet feet”.

Cost can be a deciding factor if the above mentioned elements could not sway you. Bahiagrass is usually cheaper to establish compared to bermudagrass. Roughly $150-300 per acre depending on your level of fertilization to establish bahiagrass and $300-475 to establish bermudagrass (SE Cattle Advisor, Dr. Lacy). Don’t be fooled, just because bermudagrass has a higher initial cost, the ability to increase your stocking density due to the increased forage yield on a bermudagrass pasture might mean more revenue per acre if we are a beef cattle producer.

Cultivar selection-There are many cultivars of each species to select from once you have decided between bahiagrass or bermudagrass as your perennial pasture base. When it comes to bahiagrass the good news is there is no “bad” choice if selecting from an old tried and true cultivar such as Pensacola bahiagrass or Argentine bahiagrass compared to selecting one of the newly developed cultivars like UF Riata or TifQuik bahiagrass. New cultivars are developed for environmental adaptations such as cold hardiness, disease resistance, and improved yields. Improvements in nutritional quality is more marginal.

Bermudagrass cultivars have more characteristics to evaluate depending on your intentions for the forage. Will you graze it or cut it for hay? Most bermuda cultivars are established from vegetative material rather than by seed, which could be a limitation when looking for material to plant. Tifton-44, Tifton-85, Coastal, Alicia, and Jiggs are the primary bermudagrass cultivars we recommend for Florida. Differences between them do include some nutritional markers such as increased digestibility and crude protein levels, other differences include: yield, growth habits, and cold tolerance.

If you have enough land to diversify, having both of these perennial forages in different pastures is not a bad idea. There are benefits of both forages and uses throughout the year that will prove valuable to your grazing strategy and overall forage budget. The ability to stockpile bermudagrass going into the cool-season is advantageous for many cattle producers. Some bahiagrass cultivars are better suited for overseeding annual forages such as ryegrass. All of these details should be looked at from a system perspective that have your production goals in mind. If you need help with the details we are here to assist! Contact your local Livestock Extension Agent.

For more information on the different bahiagrass and bermudagrass cultivars and management see these resources:

  1. Bahiagrass: Overview and Pasture Management, https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag342
  2. The Management and Use of Bahiagrass, https://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.html?number=B1362&title=The%20Management%20and%20Use%20of%20Bahiagrass
  3. Selecting a Forage Bermudagrass Variety, https://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.html?number=C919&title=Selecting%20a%20Forage%20Bermudagrass%20Variety
  4. Pasture and Forage Crops for Horses, https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa216