Southeastern cattle production may have just entered a new era, thanks to University of Florida researchers who’ve developed a bahiagrass that withstands cold temperatures better than other varieties and produces forage longer, saving money for ranchers and dairy farmers.

Named UF-Riata, the forage officially debuted at a ceremony in Greenville, attended by industry leaders and officials with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. It took place on the sod farm of U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., a fifth-generation farmer and longtime supporter of agricultural research and Extension programs.

At the event, IFAS honored Boyd and his great uncle, the late Edwin Hall Finlayson, a former Escambia County Extension agent who popularized bahiagrass in the 1940s.

“The state of Florida owes a huge debt to Mr. Finlayson for his efforts, which greatly enhanced our beef and dairy industries,” said Jimmy Cheek, UF senior vice-president for agriculture and natural resources.

In 1938, Finlayson noticed a unique variety of bahiagrass growing wild in the Pensacola area. Native to South America, the grass was probably transported to Florida’s Panhandle as ballast on ships, and was established accidentally. Finlayson found that cattle readily grazed on the grass. So he began recommending it to local farmers, who appreciated its resistance to disease, drought and insect attacks.

The forage became known as Pensacola bahiagrass. Its popularity spread after Finlayson and Walton County Extension agent Mitchell Wilkins patented a seed-stripping machine that enabled large amounts of seed to be gathered quickly.

Today, Pensacola bahiagrass is the predominant pasture grass in the Southeastern United States, covering 5 million acres, with 3 million acres in Florida alone.

Researchers developed UF-Riata in response to the need for a bahiagrass variety that grew well despite winter temperatures and short daylight periods, said UF Agronomist Ann Blount, who was primarily responsible for developing the variety.

“It should be successful throughout the Southern Coastal plain,” she said. Besides its potential as a pasture grass, UF-Riata may be suitable for use in crop rotations and as a utility turf.

Blount has been part of UF’s bahiagrass breeding program since its inception in 1989. Other researchers involved in the development of UF-Riata include IFAS’ Cheryl Mackowiak, Paul Mislevy, Bob Myer, Ken Quesenberry, Lynn Sollenberger and Tom Sinclair, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bill Anderson, G.W. Burton, Sam Coleman, Roger Gates and Wayne Hanna.

The word “riata” means “lariat” in Spanish, Blount said. The name was suggested by cattleman Mack Glass.

UF-Riata has been exclusively licensed to seed producer Ragan & Massey Inc., based in Ponchatoula, La. The seed should be available to customers starting in late summer 2009, said Mike Massey, co-owner of the company.

“Anybody that depends on Pensacola or Argentine-type bahiagrass is going to like UF-Riata because of the extra grazing time,” Massey said. “We think it has the potential to replace all of the Pensacola-type bahiagrass currently planted for forage.”

Nonetheless, UF forage breeders will continue looking for ways to improve bahiagrass, to make it hardier and more nutritious, said Mark McLellan, IFAS dean for research and director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station.

“We’re very proud of the milestone that UF-Riata represents, but it’s our job to keep raising the bar,” McLellan said. “With input from our Extension faculty and stakeholders, we’ll be able to determine how to focus our efforts in developing the next great bahiagrass.”

For his part, Boyd is thrilled to see the efforts of so many people — beginning with his great uncle — have yielded such impressive results.

“UF’s IFAS has really been at the forefront of agricultural research and development in our state,” Boyd said. “I am proud of their achievements in this important area. The development of bahiagrass in Florida in the 1940s was a lifesaver for our ranchers who had been struggling to maintain feed grass for cattle grazing in the Florida climate. UF-Riata is the next generation of bahiagrass and holds even more promise for Florida’s agriculture community.”