By Erin Forte Churchill
Macon County CEC
Improved bermudagrass varieties are often accepted as one of the best grazing materials in the Southeast, but the thought of establishing these varieties through sprigging can send even the best cattle producers running for the hills. It doesn’t have to! By following the steps outlined here, you can set yourself up for success with your hybrid bermudagrass hayfield or pasture.
Before even contacting a sprig producer, consider the following steps. The first thing to consider when preparing to sprig bermudagrass is variety. Your soil type, terrain, and location within Georgia can all influence your decision.
  • Tifton 85 is considered the queen of hybrid varieties, with high yields and digestibility, but isn’t the perfect option for every circumstance.
  • Russell is a highly winter-hardy variety that makes it a prime option for the northern portion of Georgia while also having one of the best root systems of all hybrids. It is significantly less digestible or drought tolerant than Tifton 85.
  • Tifton 44 is also highly winter-hardy and well suited for North Georgia and into Kentucky and Virginia. It is usually in the middle of the pack as far as digestibility and is slow to establish.
  • Coastal is the first and most common hybrid bermudagrass. It has double the yields of common bermudagrass with similar quality to Alicia. It is not cold-tolerant and prone to winter-kill up toward the mountains.
  • Alicia, Callie, Coastcross I, Grazer, Midland, Tifton 68 and 78, and World Feeder are all varieties not recommended for Georgia.

Once your variety has been selected, a soil test is essential. Soil bags can be acquired from your local Extension office. Based on the results of the test, apply the recommended amounts of lime, phosphorous, and potassium two to four weeks prior to sprigging and till to incorporate. When it comes to planting date, bermudagrass can be sprigged any time between January and July. However, it is strongly recommended that it be sprigged before the grass breaks dormancy. This is true for a few reasons. The soil moisture levels in the late winter are more conducive to successful sprigging than later in the year, and sprigs dug before breaking dormancy have higher levels of stored energy to give them a good start. If sprigging is done later in the year, adequate moisture levels are essential and sprigs planted after July have a much lower chance of surviving the following winter.

While some varieties, including Coastal, Tifton 85, and Alicia, can be established from mature stem cuttings, true sprigs (rhizomes and stolons) are the most surefire way to establish a healthy stand. Sprigs should be dug from pure, well-maintained stands of bermudagrass and planted quickly after digging as vigor will decline after digging. If stem cuttings are used, they should be six to seven weeks old and have six or more nodes. Purchasing from certified bermudagrass growers can increase the chance of establishing a pure stand of a given hybrid variety. A list of these certified growers can be obtained from your local extension agent.

At least 40 bushels of fresh sprigs should be planted per acre at two to three inches deep, unless in heavy clay soils, where they shouldn’t be covered with more than an inch of soil. Soil around the sprigs can be firmed with either the press wheels on a sprigging machine or with tractor wheels. If using topgrowth rather than sprigs, scatter tops and disk in before packing the soil with tractor wheels. It is very important with topgrowth to ensure that the planting material hasn’t gotten hot or too dry. No-till sprigging machines are available, just be sure to kill the existing vegetation with an herbicide prior to no-till sprigging.

Proper management of a sprigged field or pasture is essential for the first year to ensure proper establishment. This includes not grazing or cutting hay on newly sprigged bermudagrass until the sprigs have spread to cover the soil surface completely. Even then, don’t graze or cut to a height of below four inches in the first year. Continue to fertilize according to your soil test and control weeds in your new bermudagrass field, as the newly-sprigged bermudagrass will have a hard time competing with aggressive annual grasses and broadleaf weeds. There are many options to control weeds, including grazing, mowing, and herbicides. Contact your extension agent for current recommendations on herbicide control of weeds in newly-sprigged hayfields and pastures.

There are two diseases that can cause problems in bermudagrass, although they’re not major limiting factors in Georgia. These diseases are Helminthosporium and Rhizoctonia. Helminthosporium can result from low potassium levels and will cause red/brown to purple/black spots on foliage and black streaks on stems. These spots can expand and kill the entire leaf. Circular patches of damage will appear in the field. You can prevent this disease by maintaining potassium levels, burning bermudagrass fields four to six weeks before new growth begins every year, controlling spittlebug injury, and removing hay as soon as it is ready. Rhizoctonia is a soil fungus that can cause brown patches in the field in hot, wet weather. Generally, a fungicide application is not economical, but avoid excessive nitrogen rates and remove hay in a timely manner.

Improved bermudagrass pastures and hayfields can be quite beneficial to producers in the Southeast. With good management practices and some foresight, sprigging these varieties on your farm can be a fairly painless process. Simply select the variety that suits your soil type and weather conditions, test your soil to assist in preparing a good seedbed, plant good quality sprigs at the right time in the spring, and manage grazing, insects, and disease. Follow these steps, and you’ll be bragging about your beautiful stand of Tifton 85, Russell, or Tifton 44 in no time.