By Paul Gonzalez Contributing columnist
June 23, 2014
One thing I have learned during my time here in Sampson County is that bahia is a “four letter word”. Most, if not all, producers despise the stuff and would rather be overrun with crabgrass and pigweed than have a dinner plate sized patch of bahia on their farm. So needless to say, I was met with more than a few cross looks when I admitted to planting some on purpose. It turns out that planting the bahia was one of the best moves I had made for my forage plan so I thought this month I would try to convince the naysayers that it might have a place after all.
Everyone knows bahia as the “roadside grass” that puts out a seedhead about every three days and produces more seedheads than forage. While this isn’t exactly accurate, it does seem true. This is probably why bahia has such a bad reputation. What you need to understand is that the grass was specifically chosen by the DOT because of its growth habits. It tolerates poor soil (which is usually found on the roadsides), tolerates low fertility, won’t produce much grass (so doesn’t need to me mowed frequently), and will reseed readily. These characteristics are also typical of the variety of bahiagrass that was chosen, Pensacola. By now you are probably thinking, “Why do you want me to plant this stuff?”. Read on.
Bahia is a rhizomatous, warm season perennial grass imported from Argentina and Brazil. Pensacola is the “common bermudagrass” of the bahia world. It was probably the first variety imported and, thus, the “standard” for bahia. Argentine is another variety available but shows limited production and is subject to winterkill. The other two common varieties are Tifton 9, which I planted, and TifQuik. These two are considered improved, forage type varieties. Both were developed from Pensacola but show greater production and seedling vigor. Tifton 9 was selected and bred from the higher producing plants in the Pensacola variety. After several generations these characteristics were set in the population so there is little to no danger of the grass reverting back to the less productive Pensacola. The Tifton 9 will produce 35 to 50% more forage than the Pensacola and produces substantially fewer seed heads as well. The TifQuik is Tifton 9 that was simply selected for faster germination.
Although bahiagrass is a warm season perennial, seeding is done in late winter/early spring. The ideal time is February 15 to March 15 but can be done anytime in the months of February and March. You can seed later and have success if you get adequate rain but weed control will be an issue. Seeds are planted ¼ to ½ inch deep at a rate of 15 to 25 pounds per acre broadcast or 10 to 20 drilled. Bahia is slow to germinate, excluding TifQuik, and shows somewhat poor seedling vigor. It is also recommended that no herbicides be used on the establishing grass until it reaches at least 6 inches in height. Hence the early planting dates recommendation. It gives the grass a chance to get a jump on weeds. You should also limit the amount of nitrogen used during establishment but provide plenty of phosphorus and potassium.
Once established bahia is very aggressive, deep rooted, and forms a dense sod. Bahia is drought tolerant and grows 12 to 20 inches tall. It is adapted to a wide range of soils from droughty sand to medium wet soils. As I stated above, bahiagrass will tolerate poor fertility and soil acidity, but is responsive to nitrogen and potassium. However, it will not produce as much forage as bermudagrass at higher fertility levels so bahia is probably not well suited to spray fields or where nitrogen is not limited. For those of us who are putting a limited amount of nitrogen on our pastures, bahia can be a real asset. One other plus for the bahiagrass is that it has no major pests. So when the armyworms come calling and they have a choice between your bahia and your neighbors bermuda, where do you think they are going?
Bahia is best utilized as pasture and close grazing is desirable. I strip graze mine and usually let them take it from 6 to 8 inches tall down to 2 inches or less. Strip grazing is not necessary and continuous grazing to maintain a 2 to 3 inch height will work just as well. Typical production season for bahiagrass is April to October. This gives you two to three weeks of forage on either side of the bemudagrass production curve. Bahia can be overseeded for winter grazing just like bermudagrass and should be grazed down very close to the ground in fall just before overseeding. If you do not plan to overseed, leave 2 to 4 inches of forage to act as an insulating blanket during the winter. This will help reduce or eliminate the potential for winterkill.
One last note, I’m sure someone out there is thinking, “Yea, but won’t the cows wear out their teeth faster on bahia?”. This is a common misconception. The grass doesn’t wear out their teeth. It is the dirt the cows ingest while grazing. This will happen with bermudagrass too and has more to do with management than forage. If the forage is half an inch tall and cattle are trying to graze, they are going to get a lot of dirt no matter the type of grass!
I hope this sheds some new light on bahiagrass for you. It may not be the right grass for everyone, but it does have a place in forage systems in our area. I’m sure most of you have a place or two on the farm where it would fit. I must admit, if I had planted my bahiagrass first, I don’t know that I would have any bermudagrass on my place. I really do like it. I doubt I have many of you that convinced, but maybe I have at least convinced you it isn’t the scourge it has been made out to be. As always, for more information, or to tell me just how wrong I am, contact me at the extension office, 910-592-7161.
(Editor’s Note: Paul Gonzalez is an extension agent with the Sampson County Cooperative Extension Center.)