Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277
ONA, Fla.—A little-known African grass may bring relief to South Florida cattle ranchers plagued by the mole cricket, a subterranean pest that destroys bahia grass, the state’s most popular cattle forage.
“Creeping signal grass is not attractive to mole crickets, but cattle like it,” said Rob Kalmbacher, a forage crops specialist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It won’t replace bahia grass, but it’s good to have an alternative.”
Field trials at UF’s Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Ona show that creeping signal grass is slightly more nutritious than bahia grass, and more digestible, said Kalmbacher, who is based at the Ona center. Cow and calf weight gain was superior on creeping signal grass compared to bahia grass.
He said both grasses can be started from seed, require little fertilizer and tolerate heavy grazing. Creeping signal grass also withstands wetter conditions than bahia grass.
“The big disadvantage is that creeping signal grass produces forage only from May through September,” he said. “It’s not very cold-tolerant, so it’s best suited to use in South Florida.”
Kalmbacher said creeping signal grass typically begins growing slightly later than bahia grass, but produces more forage in summer. Because it is so productive, creeping signal grass is ideal for pastures that are stocked heavily during summer months.
“Its growth rate really spikes in the summer,” he said. “We recommend keeping the top layer grazed down. Otherwise, you get an accumulation of tough, unpalatable growth. Cattlemen may need to burn off any remaining forage in winter to ensure a leafy stand in spring.”
Specific applications for creeping signal grass might include summer grazing by high-performance cows or replacement heifers, Kalmbacher said. Cattle should be stocked at least one cow and calf per acre and creeping signal grass should be rotationally grazed.
And while mole crickets don’t attack this grass, spittle bugs might, he said. South American ranchers using creeping signal grass have reported problems with the pest.
“Spittle bugs damage other grasses in Florida, but it’s too early to draw conclusions about their effect on creeping signal grass,” Kalmbacher said. “Last year we saw some spittle bugs but it was very dry. That’s why we need to evaluate creeping signal grass for a long time and observe it under many conditions.”
Kalmbacher said his research will continue at least through 2002, focusing on grazing studies comparing creeping signal grass and bahia grass. He plans to develop a management system for creeping signal grass. Other scientists at the Ona center participating in the research include John Arthington and Findlay Pate, director of the center.
“We’ve learned a lot through trial and error,” Kalmbacher said. “When our research began, we knew very little about the practical aspects of using this forage.”
Known scientifically as Brachiaria humidicola, creeping signal grass is native to tropical Africa. Researchers at the Ona center evaluated the grass in the 1950s and again in the early 1990s, but it was not grown commercially until 1996, when South Florida bahia grass pastures were devastated by mole crickets and an unknown disease, he said.
One rancher using creeping signal grass on a regular basis is C.M. “Kelsey” Payne, chairman of C.M. Payne and Sons, Inc., a cattle and seed company based in Sebring, Fla. since 1955. Payne was convinced to try creeping signal grass after seeing a mob grazing trial at the Ona center in the mid-1990s.
“We planted seven acres initially and had excellent results,” Payne said. “Creeping signal grass delivered the results UF described. We’re going to plant more.”
Payne said cattlemen interested in trying creeping signal grass should plant it in humid soil and avoid sandy, well-drained areas. Creeping signal grass has pH needs similar to bahia grass, so check soil pH before planting, and broadcast seed lightly. Before grazing, cattlemen should allow the sward to become well established.
“As with any new forage plant, I’d say to experiment in a small area where you can control grazing,” Payne said. “But I’d encourage cattlemen to check it out.”