TTU study shows agricultural potential of Bermuda grass in Upper Cumberland

Bermuda grass might once have been considered a pesky, difficult-to-control weed that seemed to grow best where it wasn’t wanted — in yards and cropland.

Some farmers and agriculture experts, however, now devote entire pastures to the grass and tout its potential to provide a nutritious source of hay and forage for beef cattle.

And a recent study by a Tennessee Tech University agriculture instructor could change the way even more farmers in the Upper Cumberland use Bermuda grass.

Bruce Greene, an associate professor of agriculture at TTU, compared 10 different varieties of the plant and found that a local variety first discovered and patented by a farmer in White County ranked near the top of his study in all three factors he considered — ease of establishment, yield and digestible nutrients.

“Terrell Vaughn discovered the variety — which is patented as Vaughn’s # 1 — growing on his farm in White County, and it appears to be extremely productive and well adapted to the growing conditions of the Upper Cumberland region,” Greene said.

As typical of most Bermuda grasses, Vaughn’s # 1 is a hybrid that does not produce seed and must be propagated by vegetative clippings. In addition to that hybrid, Greene’s four-year experiment included seven other such hybrid varieties and two Bermuda grasses that are grown by seed.

“I included the two seeded varieties because planting the vegetative varieties requires more specialized harvesting and planting equipment, and successful establishment is highly dependent on weather conditions at the time of planting,” Greene said. “I thought a high yielding Bermuda grass could perhaps be established more consistently and economically with seed.”

He says he was surprised by the actual outcome, however. The seeded varieties didn’t produce as high of a hay yield as the vegetative varieties.

Another grass proved insufficient for cold climates. “Any plant that is not acclimated to a specific climate will eventually decline and be replaced by other plants, but because its parent genetic material originated in this region, Vaughn’s # 1 was easily established in the climate we have here.”

All of the varieties proved similar in nutrient values. “They all contained about 16 percent protein,” Greene said.

Vaughn’s # 1 was among the highest in total digestible nutrient content at 68 percent— but the grass with the lowest digestible nutrient content still measured in with 63 percent.

Other varieties that performed well in the study were Quickstand, which was originally discovered in Kentucky and which proved to be the most tolerant of cold, and Midland 99, which was developed at Oklahoma State University’s agriculture experiment station.

“Possibly the greatest advantage of this study is its actual application to farmers in this area,” Greene said. “It shows that Bermuda grass has a legitimate place in some agricultural situations in the Upper Cumberland, and it grows when fescue and other common grasses used for hay production are mostly dormant.”

Mike Richardson, a specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service who has long promoted the use of Bermuda grass in this area, helped inspire the study by suggesting that some varieties might be more adaptable than others.

Among those who assisted Greene with the study were Donald Elkins, Dean of TTU’s College of Agriculture and Human Ecology, and Cooper King, professor emeritus of agriculture and who was the first faculty member to initiate research studies with Vaughn’s #1 at TTU.