Florida farmers can produce more of the high-quality hay the state’s horses need, using a grass production system developed by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences that can yield five to seven harvests per year.

"Most Florida hay is cut only once or twice a year, after it’s old and tough," says Paul Mislevy, a forage crops expert at UF’s Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Ona. "It provides low cost cattle feed, but we rely on other states for the high-quality hay that’s typically fed to horses."

Mislevy spent 10 years developing a horse hay production system using Florakirk bermudagrass, a fast growing species that will produce during cool, short-day conditions and should be cut every 30 to 40 days, an ideal schedule for horse hay.

"The big advantage to Florakirk bermudagrass is that it starts growing early in the spring," he says. "You can usually begin harvesting in late March when nobody else is producing hay."

Mislevy said Florakirk bermudagrass should be used only for hay production, not grazing, because it is susceptible to diseases such as leaf spot, tar spot and rust if grazed or allowed to grow more than 50 days without cutting. The grass requires large amounts of fertilizer, but can survive with limited rainfall or irrigation.

Florakirk bermudagrass has other advantages, such as a protein content of 10 to 18 percent, high digestibility, good yield and persistence, short drying time and a distinctive light green color, he said.

Florida farmers typically sell the hay to recreational horse owners and stable operators, Mislevy said. A 50 pound bale of Florakirk bermudagrass hay may sell in Florida for $4 to $5, compared to $8 per bale for alfalfa or alfalfa-timothy hay from the Midwest.

"An increased supply of high-quality Florida hay could help reduce imports from other states," he said.

Florida uses about 300,000 tons of horse hay each year, Mislevy said. About one-third of that amount is produced in Florida.

Florakirk bermudagras production is approaching 100,000 acres in Florida, he said. Its popularity is increasing slowly, partly because the grass is expensive, costing about $300 per acre to establish. To maximize growers’ chances of success, Mislevy developed a system for grass establishment.

"Pasture renovation is the heart of the system," he said. "You have to eliminate existing vegetation before planting this grass or you’ll get nothing but weeds. Utilization of this pasture renovation technique has resulted in bermudagrass and stargrass establishment in two months, whereas it used to take 11 months."

Rancher John B. Platt of Wauchula first tried Florakirk bermudagrass four years ago to replace a small blueberry patch. Today, Platt and his father grow the grass on a commercial basis and plan to expand further.

"Last year, we harvested over nine tons of hay per acre, with 29 inches total rainfall and very little irrigation," Platt said. "When we expand we’ll irrigate more during spring, because that’s when we get the best hay."

Platt said he harvests hay five times a year, cutting at 35-day intervals in the spring and fall. Platt sells about half the hay, and feeds the rest to his cattle.

"Either way is fine with me," he said. "In our most recent breeding season we fed our bulls this hay instead of grain, and they fattened up real nice."

During mid-summer Platt sells freshly cut grass to growers for planting. Florakirk bermudagrass must be established from cuttings rather than seed, a technique called vegetative propagation.

To help growers master the technique, Mislevey collaborated in a video, "Pasture Renovation Using Vegetative Material," available from the IFAS-Extension Bookstore Website at http:IFASbooks.ufl.edu or by calling 1-800-226-1764.