As a horseman specializing in challenging horses, Reed Edwards is used to coming up with creative solutions. It is no surprise he applied the same approach to forages.
“I’m used to doing oddball stuff and I’m somewhat adventurous,” says the Laurens, South Carolina, horseman and hay producer. His choice of an alfalfa and novel endophyte fescue mix was based on more than a whim, however. “I did my research and thought I could get it to work. It has done nicely.”
That’s an understatement. A hay sample from the 10-acre field won its category, (mixed/annual grass/other hay), in the 2022 Southeastern Hay Contest, coming in with a Relative Forage Quality (RFQ) of 243, 25% crude protein and 70% TDN.
Edwards knew he wanted a grass-legume mix and he had experience with leafy forages. His lespedeza hay is in high demand with sheep and goat producers. He also knew he didn’t want to no till alfalfa into a bermudagrass sod. Although it has worked for other growers, in 2016 he tried the combination and says, “The alfalfa was shading out the bermuda and it was too cool for the bermuda to produce significantly.” He adds, “I don’t do bermuda well. The fertility requirements are high, it is susceptible to stem maggots and there is a lot of competition from other growers with bermudagrass hay.”
However, he says, “I had developed a liking to having grass in alfalfa because of the curing. It adds a little bit of spring and lets the air flow through.”
University of Georgia state forage Extension specialist Lisa Baxter agrees. “The grass and legumes lay differently in the swath or windrow and prop each other up. You get a fluffier windrow and there is more air flow. It helps it dry down.”
Edwards had experimented with timothy and prairie brome in an alfalfa field, but says, “Timothy is an annual in this area. One cutting and it was done. Prairie brome was a reseeding annual, kind of like ryegrass and I could get two cuttings from it. I wanted a perennial, though, rather than to guess and hope it reseeds. Tall fescue is the most adapted cool season perennial in this area and by that time, I had put fescue in with alfalfa. I had a couple of years of grazing from it and liked what I saw with palatability and performance.”
Next, Edwards put his analytical mind to work in choosing varieties. With alfalfa, it is Bulldog 505, developed at the University of Georgia. “There are very few varieties with a 5 winter-dormancy. There are either cooler season varieties or they’re developed for Arizona or Florida.” He also says, “It was developed very close by, 80 miles, and developed under grazing pressure. I really liked it and wanted a grazing tolerant variety. I like to have the option to graze, both to feed my livestock and as a management tool.”
Estancia Tall Fescue, produced by Mountain View Seeds, was his choice for fescue. “It has very good palatability and has a reputation among the novel endophyte varieties as persistent.”
The patented novel endophyte in Estancia is ArkShield. Every lot sold is tested for viability and the presence of toxic alkaloids according to standards set by the Alliance for Grassland Renewal. The endophyte is safe and aids in the persistence of the grass. Additional information on novel endophytes is available at grasslandrenewal.org
When Edwards got ready to plant, there was no last-minute dash to apply fertilizer. He takes a soil sample at planting, and compliments of litter from area broiler houses and careful management, the organic matter was 4.7 and the pH was 6.9. Four years after planting, the potash, phosphorus and calcium are still high and the magnesium is listed as sufficient.
The high organic matter is a figure Edwards is particularly happy to see. “A percentage point of organic matter holds a half an inch of rain. In the middle of a drought, a half an inch will save you.”
The only other pre-planting preparation he did was a two-quart spray per acre of glyphosate in mid-September, before planting in mid-October 2018. He had disced and smoothed the field in 2016, before sprigging Bermudagrass, which had almost disappeared.
Next, he mixed the alfalfa and fescue seed together in a 2:1 ratio (20 lbs. of alfalfa and 10 lbs. of fescue per acre), then planted using the small seed box of a no till drill. “I planted it as close to a quarter inch of depth as I could,” he notes. “It rained nicely after, and I got a very nice stand. The alfalfa came up first. I had to look for the grass with the first cutting. The fescue comes on more as time goes on which is interesting, since it is a cool season forage, too.”
Pest control started two to three weeks after emergence with a spray for mole crickets. “They will wreck-havoc on newly emerged alfalfa plantings. One of my big dislikes with alfalfa is how much I have to spray,” he comments. “I’m spoiled. I’ve had lespedeza since 2007 and never used an insecticide.” Each year, in mid-March he sprays for alfalfa weevils, then after he cuts hay in July, August and September he sprays for leaf hoppers. Those sprays also take care of army worms.
In the spring after planting, he also sprayed with Prowl H20 (pendimethalin) for weed control.
He tries to hold off on the first hay cutting until the first of May. “It is recommended you let alfalfa go a little farther in bloom for the first cutting but it likes to be ready in mid-April. Most of the time I graze it first.” He then stays on a monthly schedule, unless drought or deer damage interferes with growth, then he mows if needed. He tries to cut when alfalfa is 24” tall and fescue is 18”, then in late summer he’ll cut when fescue is 10 to 12” tall.
He says the fescue needs to rest in the summer when it is hot. “With cool season bunch grasses the regrowth is in the crown. The key is high skids on the mower-conditioner. The crown of fescue is 5” tall and the mower is skating right over it. That leaves the growing point intact.” He says alfalfa likes the higher cutting height as well. “If you leave a little more leaf on the plant it grows back faster.”
As for the award-winning quality of the mix, that’s no accident. “We got a nice early cutting time when it was just beginning to bloom. The plants were in their prime.”
That still leaves the challenge of retaining the nutritious leaves of the alfalfa plant. “They are easy to dry and easy to lose. I use humidity to soften the leaves so I can retain them.” While he occasionally uses a humidity meter, now that he has experience with the forages he relies more on another of his horsemanship skills, feel, to know when to bale. “I bale about the time the sun goes down, when the humidity is up to around 75% and the moisture is around 16%. I usually come in very close.”
The first cutting usually yields around 500 lbs. an acre, or 50 70 lb. square bales. The second cutting is around 40 to 45 bales an acre and the third around 35 bales an acre, then drops to 20 to 25 bales an acre in the fall. “After the first of October it is really hard to dry it because of the shorter days, then I graze it sporadically for three weeks.”
Even though alfalfa is a short-lived perennial, Edwards got 4.5 years out of one of his fields. He’s looking for more with this one. With a combination of fact-based management and feel, he says, “One of my friends says I talk about my hay like her artist friends talk about their art. Some say I have it down to a science. Others say it is an art. At this point I think I see the art side more.”
With his mixture of alfalfa and novel endophyte fescue, make that fine art.
Hay is for horses, or not
Friends and followers of Reed Edwards have come to expect the unexpected with his forage program. However, even they are surprised to see horses grazing his alfalfa-novel endophyte fescue mix. For Edwards, it is just another management tool for the forages as well as quality feed for his equines. However, the irony isn’t lost on the Laurens, South Carolina, horseman and hay producer. “I got into hay production so I could control the quality. Now I don’t even use it.”
In addition to alfalfa and fescue, his horses graze annual pastures made up of three small grains, four clovers, radishes and turnips to perennial fields of lespedeza. “I could feed a dairy cow with what I feed my horses. I feed them a whole lot of diverse forages and let them pick. They stay in nice shape.”
While it is working for Edwards, even with the nutrient-dense alfalfa mix, University of Georgia equine nutritionist Kylee Jo Duberstein says horse owners need to approach with caution. On the positive side, she says, “Alfalfa is a premier forage. It is high in crude protein, digestible energy and calcium, as well as other minerals.” She says it is low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), sugars and starches, which many horse owners try to limit. She also says calcium helps buffer the stomach, which is another plus since many performance horses are prone to ulcers.
Duberstein also says fescue is good quality with a high level of digestibility. “Since Reed’s is novel endophyte, it doesn’t cause reproductive problems in brood mares or pasture laminitis, which can be associated with fescue containing the toxic endophyte.” She adds, “Novel endophyte fescue is definitely the way to go and grows well in this area.”
However, she cautions, “We want to be selective about what kind of horses we graze on the mixture since fescue is high in sugars, which can trigger laminitis in insulin dysregulated horses and the calorie level of the alfalfa-fescue mix is very high. It is not ideal for horses with metabolic issues or that are overweight since obesity drives metabolic syndrome in horses.”
With hard keepers or high-performance horses, however, the equine nutritionist says, “It is a great mix.” Once again, though, she cautions about grazing young, growing horses on the mixture. “Monitor their growth. Exceeding a young horse’s nutrient needs can contribute to fast growth and some bone and joint disorders.”
For Edwards’ Quarter horses, it is working well. He adds, “A couple of years ago a client imported a six figure, 17.2 hand Dutch warmblood. She couldn’t put weight on him with all kinds of special feeds and hay.” After a few weeks at Edwards’ farm, with his high-quality grazing but no supplemental feed, he put on weight. “My client couldn’t believe it when she saw him.”
~ Becky Mills, 185 Lovett Farms Road, Cuthbert, GA 39840, 229/938-1698 (mobile and office), Beckymills81@yahoo.com (e-mail)
Lisa Baxter, PhD, Assistant Professor, Extension Forage Specialist, University of Georgia, CAES Campus, Tifton. 2360 Rainwater Road, Tifton, GA 31793, 229/386-3459 (office), email@example.com (e-mail)
Kylee Jo Duberstein, PhD, University of Georgia, Department of Animal and Dairy Science, 425 River Road, Athens, GA 30602, 706/542-7032 (office), 706/410-6514 (mobile), firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail)
Reed Edwards, Foxpipe Farm, 673 Easy Road, Laurens, SC 29360, 864/683-5757 (home), 864/871-2575 (cell), email@example.com
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion. For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org