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Your Pasture Your Choice-Choosing the Right Forage for Your South Florida System

Ranchers may grow the best tasting product at the grocery store, but they are also known to grow something else…grass. Many ranchers have mastered the art of growing abundant forages to maintain their herds. There are several considerations ranchers make when they decide which forage variety will work for them in their operation.

When selecting a forage variety there are several factors to consider. The first question should be, what are your goals? Are you interested in grazing or baling hay? Will you rotationally graze, mob graze or continuously stock? Will you use your forage for other purposes, like cut sod? What kind of soil do you have, dry or poorly drained? Since we are talking south Florida, the type of grass you select should have adaptations for the heat, long sunny days, with mild winter temperatures. How intense will your management be? Each forage has pros and cons and can suit your operation type. It may take some trial and error.

In this article, we will discuss the various perennial forage varieties popular in south Florida.

Stargrass is known for its rapid establishment and significant yield in the summer months. It produces a high quality forage. It prefers a soil pH of 5.5-6.0. Research conducted at the Range Cattle Research and Education Center has shown daily gains of .92-1.1lbs with a stocking rate of 3 head/acre. The average crude protein of stargrass is 11-16% with digestibility of 55-60%. The target stubble height should be 6-8” (meaning not to graze below this height) while the target maturity is 4-5 weeks. Stargrass can yield as much as 2-2.5 tons/acre within weeks of establishment and up to 7 tons/acre. The fertilizer recommendations are dependent on the soil testing and harvesting or grazing options, but stargrass responds linearly to increasing levels of N fertilizer during the summer. Stargrass is established by vegetative propagation. The most used cultivars are Ona, Florona, Florico, and Okeechobee.

Stargrass does come with some disadvantages. The quality can rapidly decrease after 6-7 weeks of regrowth. Therefore, it is advisable to rotationally graze or cut within the target maturity. Stargrass does require slightly higher fertility application than a bahia, or limpograss, mainly due to greater production and extraction of nutrients from the soil. Stargrass doesn’t fair well after a frost, it can lose 5-6% in digestibility after 1 week and up to 15-18% 4 weeks after a freeze.

Limpograss is known for its high yield and adaptability to poorly drained soils. It prefers soil pH at 5.5. Limpograss thrives during the warm months yielding up to 10 tons/acre. Limpograss is infamous for its ability to retain digestibility as it matures (better than most grasses), making it ideal to stockpile for the winter months. However, the crude protein may decrease to around 3-5% which is below the requirement of all beef cattle categories in Florida. Based on research projects at Ona, average daily gain on crossbred yearling heifers was 0.5-1.4 lbs. During the growing season, optimal stubble height is 8-10” with a target maturity of 4-6 weeks, not to exceed 18-24”. The fertilizer recommendations for grazing are 60 lbs of nitrogen in late winter or early spring and another application in late summer or early fall, while P and K levels should be based on soil testing. Limpograss is established by vegetative propagation. The most planted cultivars are Floratla, Kenhy, and Gibtuck.

Disadvantages of limpograss is the lower protein levels and the difficulty to dry for hay due to high yield, large stems, and the soil moisture of where it prefers to grow. In addition, limpograss is sensitive to 2-4D herbicides and the herbicide options are limited.

Bahiagrass is the most commonly planted perennial grass Florida. Its popularity stems from its superior persistence under low management and low soil fertility. It prefers soil pH of 5.5. Bahiagrass can yield up to 7 tons/acre of dry matter with proper fertilizer application. Bahiagrass nutritive value can vary by the month and management level, but it can range from 10-15% crude protein for fertilized pastures. Studies have shown average daily gain on crossbred heifers to be 0.3-1.2 lbs. Fertilizer recommendations include 50 lbs of nitrogen/acre in early spring and again in early summer. Bahiagrass phosphorus fertilizer recommendation is based on soil and tissue samples, therefore, producers are encouraged to send soil and tissue samples in early Fall for phosphorus fertilization recommendation. The target maturity is 3 weeks and can be grazed as low as 2”. Bahiagrass is established by seed, but can spread by rhizomes once established. Bahiagrass is a versatile forage that can offer grazing opportunities as well as hay, seed, and sod production. The most seeded cultivars are Pensacola, Tifton 9, TifQuik, UF-Riata, and, Argentine

Bermudagrass is a persistent perennial commonly used in hay production throughout Florida. Bermudagrass prefers soil pH at 5.0-6.0. It can yield up to 10 tons/acre with a crude protein level reaching 10%. Its target maturity is 4 weeks and should not be grazed below 3-4”. Fertilizer recommendation include 80 lbs of nitrogen/acre in the spring and 80 lbs of nitrogen mid-summer. If using for hay production add an 80-40-20 mix/acre after each cutting. Most varieties are vegetatively propagated, although some can be seeded. The most popular cultivars are Jiggs, Mislevy, Tifton 85, Coastal, and Alicia.

Disadvantages of bermudagrass may be the higher fertility requirements (than Limpo and Bahia) and less tolerance to poorly drained soils.

Each variety has benefits and challenges. Remember, what works for your neighbor may not work for you. Finding the right forage to suit your needs is a process. Be patient. Seek help if you need it. Ask your local UF/IFAS extension agent or reach out to our UF/IFAS State Forage Specialists.

Refer to www.edis.ifas.ufl.edu for more information.

“Stargass” Publication #SS-AGR-62

“Limpograss-Overview and Management” Publication #SS-AGR-320

“Bahiagrass-Overview and Pasture Management” Publication #SS-AGR-332