Mike Rankin, Hay and Forage Grower managing editor
(Previously published in Hay & Forage Grower: February 15, 2018)
Sold on sericea hay (and other stuff)
I meet a lot of people at forage meetings during the course of a year. Never has anyone broached the subject of sericea lespedeza . . . that’s until I met Reed Edwards at a Georgia hay conference in 2016.
Edwards is one of those farmers who is not afraid to move outside the box of accepted practices or try whatever the latest extension recommendation might be. Either way, he’s going to forge his own path.
There’s currently a lot going on at Edwards’ 90-acre Fox Pipe Farm. In addition to harvesting sericea lespedeza hay for the past 10 years, Edwards is also in the process of ridding his farm of toxic tall fescue in favor of one of the new novel endophyte varieties, interseeding alfalfa into his current bermudagrass fields, sprigging a new field of Tifton 85 bermudagrass, and growing teff grass.
The Laurens, S.C., farmer doesn’t have a herd of beef cows or stockers. He breeds, trains, and maintains horses; it’s a passion he inherited from his father. Edwards needs both pasture and hay, and after a couple of dry years in 2005 and 2006, he started looking for a better answer. It came in the form of sericea lespedeza, a deep-rooted, bloat resistant, perennial legume.
Edwards currently has 15 acres of sericea that he cuts three times per year for hay. He plans to establish another 20 acres in 2018.
“Most of my customers have Boer show goats or dairy goats,” Edwards said. “I also have a few horse customers who have tried it with pretty good results, but the horse folks are not too adventuresome. Those who have tried it tell me their horses eat it first,” he added. Edwards feeds sericea hay to his own horses, which is why he initially planted the crop.
It’s not by coincidence that goat customers are willing to drive two to three hours to pick up Edwards’ sericea hay. “One of the desirable qualities of sericea lespedeza is its anthelmintic properties for small ruminants,” said Don Ball, retired Auburn University forage agronomist and a recognized authority on the warm-season legume species. “The research is pretty compelling that sericea controls internal parasites and is a good alternative to chemical dewormers.”
Edwards establishes his sericea lespedeza in the spring, after the risk of a heavy frost has passed. “The first field I established using about 25 pounds of seed per acre,” he said. “The second field I used 40 pounds per acre, seeding half in one direction and half going perpendicular to the first pass.” According to Ball, a thick stand is desired for hay production, resulting in plants that have finer stems.
Hulled, scarified sericea seed is small (335,000 seeds per pound) and slow to establish. Being a legume, sericea also needs to be planted with the proper bacterial inoculant. Edwards uses a double-cultipacker seeder to ensure the seed is not placed deeper than 1/4 inch. “My biggest challenge was getting rid of the native bermudagrass prior to seeding,” Edwards said.
To prepare his newest field for seeding, Edwards applied glyphosate twice in the fall. He then planted winter peas and grazed those off the following March. Next, he made another application of glyphosate along with 2,4-D amine. After waiting two weeks, he disked, smoothed the field, and seeded the sericea.
During the year of establishment, Edwards applied 2,4-DB amine about six weeks after seeding to control broadleaves like pigweed and then followed with a grass herbicide two weeks later. In late summer, he applied Pursuit to help control persistent broadleaves.
In established sericea, dodder and bermudagrass have been Edwards’ most challenging weed issues. For dodder, he uses a pre-emergence application of Prowl H2O in the spring. Once sericea is established, stands can last for many years. Edwards’ first field is now over 10 years old.
“Sericea lespedeza growers are not blessed with a lot of improved variety options,” Edwards said. He gets his seed from Sims Brothers Seed Farm (Union Springs, Ala.) where they grow and harvest 1,000 acres of sericea seed.
Sims Brothers is the exclusive marketer of AU Grazer, which was developed at Auburn University and is the newest improved variety available. It was the first variety with grazing tolerance, but it is also good for haymaking. Sims Brothers has been in the seed business since the late 1940s. In addition to selling AU Grazer sericea seed, they also produce and market sericea lespedeza pellets.
Tom Sims, the company’s owner, said he sells seed to both the domestic and export markets. “The domestic market has quadrupled in recent years because of the parasite control qualities now known to be associated with sericea,” Sims said. “We sold out of seed this year (2017) in August and that hasn’t happened since 2012.”
In the Plains states, common sericea lespedeza has become a noxious weed that is often rejected by grazing livestock. Ball, however, noted that the improved varieties being grown by Edwards and others are “nothing like the plants being cursed in the Plains. They’re almost like a whole different species, being shorter, leafier, and with finer stems.
“The great thing about sericea lespedeza is that it grows in places where other forage species won’t grow,” Ball explained. “Also, once established, it’s very inexpensive to maintain, especially for grazing.” From a winterhardiness standpoint, sericea is easily adapted anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line but has been successfully grown as far north as southern Ohio.
Edwards agreed that stand maintenance is minimal once established. “I don’t think there’s any insect or disease problems of significance, and I’ve relied on poultry litter as a primary fertilizer source for phosphorus and potassium.” Sericea requires a soil pH of 5.5 to 6.2.
Edwards doesn’t cut or graze his drought-tolerant sericea during the seeding year, letting the stand become firmly established. After that, fields are cut three times per year. “I cut when the plants are about 18 to 24 inches tall,” Edwards explained. “If you wait too long, the plants start to drop their lower leaves and the quality declines.” Edwards also prefers to leave a high stubble.
Reed Edwards uses a hygrometer to measure relative humidity next to his wilted windrows. Once the humidity reaches 60 percent, he deems the forage ready to bale.
Edwards noted that his smallest yield of the season usually comes from the first cutting. This is perhaps because sericea is a warm-season legume. In 2017, he harvested 1.5 tons per acre from his initial cutting. Ball said that in Auburn University trials, total-season sericea yields have ranged from 2.5 to over 5 tons of dry matter per acre, depending on the variety and year.
Both Edwards and Ball noted that sericea forage dries extremely fast, so caution must be taken not to let the crop reach the point where leaf loss becomes an issue. Edwards rakes his crop into a windrow to finish the drying process, often letting the crop get below his target baling moisture. After lying overnight, he then monitors relative humidity next to the windrow using a hand-held, battery-powered hygrometer. Once the humidity reaches 60 percent, he bales. “One morning I was baling at 7 o’clock,” Edwards recalled.
Made correctly, bales of sericea lespedeza are extremely leafy. Edwards prices his sericea bales at a higher value than his alfalfa and easily sells his production right out of the field without ever having to store it in the barn. He forage tests the hay using wet chemistry. Crude protein percent usually runs in the upper teens with TDN (total digestible nutrients) in the upper 50s to low 60s. Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) was 35 percent on his 2017 first cutting.
The final cutting of the year is made about September 1. Sericea is sensitive to a late-fall cutting and should be allowed ample time to grow and replenish carbohydrate root reserves in the fall. It’s also at this time that sericea produces its only seedhead of the year. After temperatures cool to the point where sericea stops growing in late fall, the forage can be removed if desired. Edwards has been known to graze his fields late in the fall.
Both a blessing and curse
Compared to most forage species, sericea lespedeza has a high concentration of condensed tannins. These are naturally occurring plant compounds with potentially positive and negative effects on the consuming livestock. Tannins bind with proteins and plant carbohydrates; they also give the plant its natural defense mechanism to survive and ward off pests.
Improved sericea varieties were bred with low to moderate tannin levels, though, according to Ball, low levels are actually somewhat detrimental to the plant’s stress tolerance and persistence. The presence of tannins makes sericea a bloat-resistant legume and helps protect protein during the rumen digestive process to improve final utilization. At the same time, tannins also can contribute to lower overall forage digestibility.
“In our studies, we found improved sericea varieties such as AU Grazer to offer one of the lowest cost of cattle gains among warm-season alternatives,” Ball said. “As a component of a year-round management system, sericea is vastly underutilized.”