BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Benton County, Ark., producers, after setting national bermuda hay quality standards, have turned their attention to using bermudagrass as an environmental tool, says Robert Seay, county agent with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

The American Forage and Grassland Council has for three years in a row honored Benton County farmers for producing the nation's highest-quality bermuda hay.

Seay said, "Our producers use the Greenfield variety for top hay quality, but have switched horses, more or less, to work with the higher-yielding Midland-99 variety for this project."

The project he was referring to is using bermudagrass as a tool to reduce soil phosphorus in the Eucha-Spavinaw watershed. The Eucha-Spavinaw and other nutrient-sensitive watershed areas have been targeted in an ongoing phosphorus squabble with Oklahoma.

"The search continues for methods of reducing both soil and water phosphorus levels, which are reportedly the result of agriculture and municipal by-product applications and from urban and other non-point phosphorus sources," Seay said.

He said bermudagrass can remove phosphorus from the soil. Higher-yielding varieties remove higher amounts of phosphorus.

Midland-99, a variety developed by the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station, was included because it consistently produced the highest yields in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri variety tests.

Seay said Midland grown in Benton County research plots produced 10 tons of quality hay per acre, which surpassed yields from plots at Batesville.

"These results aren't all that surprising since Benton County has a track record of surpassing yield and quality results documented elsewhere across the state. Despite being in extreme northwest Arkansas and saddled with a shorter growing season than most Arkansas counties, Benton County has an advantage because of naturally high mineral soils, consistent seasonal growing conditions and producer attention to management practices," says Seay.

Some may call "fowl" because of the local availability of poultry litter as a high-quality fertilizer, but Seay noted the Midland-99 demonstration plot results were achieved with ammonium nitrate and potassium fertilizers only. Designed as a phosphorus removal project, no phosphorus-containing fertilizers or materials were applied to the plots.

Seay is optimistic the results with Midland-99 can be duplicated commercially.

"Actually, many producers involved with our Quality Forage program have produced Greenfield yields fairly equal to our highest Midland plot yields. Last year, our top five producers averaged 7.25 tons per acre, and our highest producer yield, to date, has been 8.25 tons with the Greenfield variety."

"In 2003, even with a pitifully dry August weather pattern, one Midland-99 producer hit the 9-ton mark," according to the county agent.

"I think we'll see 10 tons of Midland-99 chalked up by a producer in the very near future," said Seay.

How much phosphorus can the Midland variety remove from soils?

Seay said, "In the process of producing 10 tons dry matter, Midland-99 removed 50 pounds of phosphorus per acre per year from the demonstration site."

Although using bermudagrass to remove phosphorus is not fast, when incorporated with other management practices, it can be a useful tool, Seay said. He expressed hopes that this and similar phosphorus removal information, such as that documented by Wayne Coblentz, University of Arkansas animal science professor, will perhaps be of use in the near future.

"Hopefully, when the smoke clears from the Arkansas-Oklahoma water quality issue, producers will be credited for implementing best management practices in their poultry and livestock farming operations. When that happens, perhaps this Oklahoma bermuda variety, when managed for intensive hay production, will have a role to play."

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.