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Western Farmer Stockman

One man's headache another's cure

Fast-growing bermudagrass answer for Southwest cattleman One man's pariah is another man's panacea. Jiggs bermudagrass is a pariah to some. For others, it is becoming a panacea that offers at least one cure for the ills of southwest Texas agriculture.

Jiggs is a Coastal bermudagrass mutation discovered by a northeast Texas dairyman growing in one of his fields. Its name is derived from the dairyman, J.R. Riggs, and it has gained recognition as one of the most voracious hybrid bermudagrasses ever.

It is so aggressive that row crop and vegetable researchers on Texas A&M University's Uvalde research station would just as soon Extension agronomist and forage specialist Charles "Stick" Stichler plant research Jiggs trials somewhere else other than on the station.

"They finally told me I could plant on a strip of ground next to a shed - away from any row crops trials," laughed Stichler. "It's pretty aggressive. It can grow two and a half inches a night in the summer when it is well watered and fertilized."

Stichler has been evaluating Jiggs bermudagrass alongside other Coastal bermudagrasses for more than a decade in many areas of the state.

"It does well in many areas," he said. "The only place it does not do better than other Coastal bermudagrasses is in high pH soils."

It is doing very well for Uvalde cattlemen Joe Hargrove and his son-in-law Jimmy Speer. Jiggs is becoming a panacea that may offer them and others a profitable route out of non-profit row crop farming.

"I think you are going to see a lot more farmers go back to stock farming from row crop farming in south Texas. Commodity prices are just too low for people to make a living at row crop farming," said Uvalde County agriculture Extension agent Kenneth White.

"Cattle on irrigated pasture with Jiggs bermudagrass may be a better use of our water and other resources. That is especially true right now because the drought is reducing cattle numbers of dryland pasture and prices for stocker cattle are good."

That is very evident with the ambitious stocker cattle operation Hargrove and Speer have put together near Crystal City, Texas, an area once known as the spinach capital of the world.

Hargrove, a Uvalde native and longtime south Texas cattleman who owns South-west Livestock Exchange in Uvalde, bought 7,000 acres near Crystal City several years ago. Much of the land is crisscrossed with cement-lined ditches and dotted with small manmade ponds, remnants of the days when hundreds of workers were on the payroll of companies with names like Del Monte producing spinach and other high value crops.

The spinach is gone, the result of high labor and low prices. However, the good land with equally good water remains. There are more than 30 wells on the property. Water is at 350 feet, and Hargrove and Speer are irrigating it with large 500-acre Zimmatic center pivots, two wells per pivot.

He has nine pumps operating now, with the goal of stock farming 5,400 acres of irrigated pasture, all in Jiggs bermudagrass in the summer and ryegrass in the fall in a year-round stocker ranch for 10,000 head of cattle.

Yep, that is a little more than two acres per animal, but Jiggs can handle it, Stichler, White and Hargrove say.

"The stuff grows like crazy," said Hargrove. "We plant it from tops, and in 45 days we have a solid cover. We planted it for the first time last year and overseeded with rye and it did not hurt it. It came back strong this spring."

Stichler has the research to back that up. In a May harvested trial with Jiggs, Alicia, World Feeder, Tifton 85 and Coastal, Jiggs produced two and a half times more forage by weight than World Feeder and Coastal Bermuda; 66 percent more than Tifton 85, and 30 percent more than Alicia.

Jiggs produced 10 times more pounds of protein per acre in a June 29 cutting than World Feeder; three times more than Alicia; double Coastal, and 40 percent more than Tifton 85.

"Jiggs produced more forage, spread faster, and endured drought stress better than any the other grasses," reported Stichler.

"We had 1,250 head of stocker calves grazing on two 125-acre blocks, and we still baled 250 round bales off one 125-acre block," Hargrove said. The pasture was only a year old, and the hay was baled at the recommended seven-leaf stage.

White is not surprised. He has seen Jiggs perform for several years in both South and Southwest Texas. "It is a very good hybrid bermuda that not only grows well, but has good feed quality," White added.

Hargrove and Speer are buying cattle from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, generally 300 to 400 pound calves they graze to 600 to 700 pounds on the irrigated pasture before shipping them to Barret Feedyards in Hereford, Texas, a 120,000-head feeding operation on the Texas High Plains.

"We are in partnership with Barret on the cattle," explained Hargrove. "We figure we can put on a pound and a half to two pounds of gain per calf per day with this system."

THAT IS not the 2.5-pound gain expected from a wheat-ryegrass-oat stocker operation, but the Jiggs/ryegrass program is considerably less farming and management.

"With the bermudagrass, all you have is a one-time farming expense. It's not like farming other crops," he said.

Speer has set aside one 125-acre block as the source of the "tops" for new acreage. The Jiggs is clipped and baled in the morning and spread with a bale chopper as soon as possible the same day on well-watered, disked ground.

"You need to have pieces with about five or six nodes to make sure you get good rooting," White said. "Each nodes represents a root source."

The ground is cultipacked after the tops are scattered, and that's the end of the farming part.

The Coastal bermudagrass mutation is irrigated with an inch of water per week and fertilized with about 30 units of nitrogen per week.

In October, Speer overseeds with rye, aerating the bermuda before planting. "This will take us through the winter, making this a year-round stocker operation," he said.

White believes irrigation rates on pasture, particularly the Jiggs bermudagrass, can be reduced with accurate evapotranspiration information. A new network of weather stations has been set up in the area to calculate weekly ET for all irrigated crops in the area.

"I think once we begin collecting ET rates and using them to irrigate, we can realize a savings of a fourth to a third of the water we are now using by irrigating according to crop use, based on the weather," White said. "That will make it even more attractive."

Several others are doing the same thing Hargrove and Speer are doing, and White thinks the number of Jiggs producers and stock farmers will grow.

Any drawback to Jiggs?

"I did get a complaint from a Jiggs grower in Knippa just east of Uvalde three years ago. We got a lot of rain one summer and he calls up to complain that all he did that summer was bale hay. He was baling every 25 days, and getting tired of it," said Stichler.

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