Coastal vs. Tifton 85 Bermudagrass for Horses.
Facts & Myths.
Yoana Newman, PhD, Forage Extension Specialist
Bermudagrasses are one of the most
important grasses used in the U.S. for horse
grazing and hay feeding. Despite the
abundant research on these grasses and
their popularity among producers in the
cattle livestock industry, there are many
myths surrounding their use as horse feed.
This publication will present the general
facts and characteristics of bermudagrass. It
will provide the distribution (acreage),
botanical description, forage production
and quality comparisons for Coastal and
Tifton 85 bermudagrass, with the intent
that horse owners will make feeding
decisions based on facts instead of myths.
Facts vs. Myths
'Coastal' is an improved bermudagrass that
has been used in Florida since its release six
decades ago; Tifton 85 is a more recent
variety that has been around for more than
10 years and is increasingly being adopted
because of its superior nutritive value and
production. However, more myths are
linked to pasture and hay use for horses
than for any other animal. And when the
discussion comes to the specifics of
varieties it is not any different:--"lf the stem
is too thick my horse will not eat it" Such
statements apply to many situations, but
not to all varieties. As discussed later, some
of these 'thick' stems are highly digestible
depending on the variety. As good 'pasture
and hay myths' they override the facts
derived from sound research studies
regardless of the years under examination!
This should not be the case; in many
instances, they are more fiction than fact
and they come to life based on anecdotal
observations exchanged in the attempt to
explain the dire outcome of
On a national scale bermudagrass is grown
in 25-30 million acres for livestock use. It is
regarded as the most widely planted warm-
season perennial grass in the southern
United States. If wondering how many acres
are planted to bermudagrass in Florida and
where they are in the state, you will find out
that in the last 10 years the hay acreage
harvested (all species including bahiagrass
and perennial peanut) has ranged from
250,000 acres (1997) to 290,000 acres
(2005). In 2006, the total acreage harvested
for hay was 260,000 and approximately 80%
of the producers in north Florida, use one of
several varieties of bermudagrasses. Most
horse hay in Florida is produced in the north
but, with the increased demand and rapidly
growing market for horse hay, production in
south Florida is becoming a cash crop. The
small farm owner relies almost entirely on
external sources within Florida and Georgia
hay supply, and in dry years supply comes
from as far north as the Carolinas and
Description of the grasses
To break some of the myths, a good start is
the clarification of the botanical and
morphological characters between Coastal
and Tifton 85 bermudagrass. Coastal
bermudagrass, whose scientific name is
Cynodon dactylon, is a cross or hybrid
developed in Georgia in 1943. In terms of
propagation, this grass has sterile flowers
(there is no seed production and the plant
reproduces mainly vegetatively through
pieces of stem or runners). Tifton 85 is also
a sterile hybrid; however, there is a
distinction between the two. Coastal is a
cross whose parents were two
bermudagrass species (Cynodon dactylon X
Cynodon dactylon). Although we call Tifton
85 a bermudagrass, it is a cross between a
bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) and a
close tropical relative characterized by a
more upright growth than coastal called
stargrass (Cynodon nlemfuensis); the
particular stargrass used in this cross was
selected because of the high digestibility.
These differences have important
implications for management and the
nutritional composition of the grass.
Tifton 85 bermudagrass in appearance is
slightly different from Coastal; when
comparing the two, Tifton 85 stands out as
taller with more upright growth habit, larger
stems that spread rapidly, and broader
leaves with darker color; the rhizomes, or
underground stems for energy storage are
fewer but larger and they have been
associated with the good tolerance to
drought present in Tifton 85. This grass was
selected for deep, drought sands and,
therefore, is adapted to well drained soils.
Although more drought tolerant than
Coastal, Tifton 85 is less winter hardy
because of that tropical parent with no cold
hardiness. Nevertheless, in Florida it can be
grown all the way to the Panhandle and
winter hardiness is not an issue. The low
stubble recommended for Coastal is not
necessarily recommended for Tifton 85.
Compared to Coastal management, Tifton 85
requires leaving an additional inch or two in
the stubble due to the more upright growth,
and longer time to replenish reserves if cut
at a lower stubble.
In Florida, almost exclusively, all
bermudagrass production is based on hybrid
bermudagrasses like Coastal and Tifton 85.
When properly fertilized and managed they
produce about 30-60% more dry matter
than the seeded types. Providing a
reference figure for dry matter production
of Coastal and Tifton 85 is difficult because
production varies with soil moisture, fertility
and management (age at cutting or grazing);
however, annual production reports for
fertilized (100 Ib N/year) Coastal have
ranged from 7000 to 11,000 Ib/acre while
Tifton 85 yields have been consistently
higher by 25-30% more. In Florida, dry
matter yields of 3,000 to 5,000
Ib/acre/cutting are not uncommon for Tifton
85 with 3 to 4 cuttings per year. With high
soil fertility/fertilization yields from both
grasses can be substantially increased.
Research data from different southern
states (Florida, Georgia, Texas) have shown
that under similar cultural practices Tifton
85 is about 10% units higher in digestibility
and also ranks higher than Coastal
bermudagrass in crude protein
concentration (1-5% units higher).
Comparison of quality related characteristics
of different bermudagrasses across the
south ranks Tifton 85 as one with the highest
nutritive value (Table 1).
Under high Nitrogen fertilization Coastal CP
concentration may range from 10-17% while
reports of 17-20% CP for Tifton 85 under
high fertility conditions and young stages of
maturity are not uncommon.
An aspect associated with the high nutritive
value of Tifton 85 and of importance,
particularly for horse feeding, is the higher
digestibility of the dry matter and more
importantly of the fiber component (Table
2). Although it has thicker stems, those
stems have fiber content that is more
digestible and the decline overtime is not as
pronounced as that for Coastal.
Table. 2 Forage and fiber digestibility for
Coastal and Tifton 85 bermudagrasses
Grass 3 5 7
Digestibility Tifton 67 65 59
Coastal 66 62 54
Digestible Tifton 57 60 48
fiber (NDF)* 85
Coastal 43 53 41
NDF= Neutral Detergent Fiber
Adapted from Mandevu et al (1999)
Nevertheless, the fact that Tifton 85 is
regarded as a hybrid bermudagrass with
very high nutritive value, and possibly the
highest quality hybrid released, does not
make it suitable for every field conditions.
Table 1. Performance of bermudagrasses across the south
Choice Grass Winter Digestibility Protein Rhizomes
1 Tifton 85 3.5 1 1 Some
2 Tifton 44 1 4 3 V many
3 Coastal 3 6 3 Many
4 Coastcross 9 1 1 None
(No cold tolerance)
No Alicia 3.5 9 3 V many
Ratings: 1 = best, 9= poorest.
Adapted from Burton and Utley (2005).
Having an excellent production and quality
potential does not preclude them from
mismanagement: a) being planted in areas
where it should not be utilized (i.e. areas
with poor drainage); b) being used at very
late stages of maturity if they are cut or
grazed after 35-60 days their nutritive value
will be extremely low and will very likely not
meet the animal nutritional requirement; c)
mismanagement after post harvest
conditions, such as weathering of the hay or
the use of big round rolls to feed just one or
two horses in this situation, the roll cannot
be consumed promptly and it will develop
mold regardless of the grass species or grass
Coastal and Tifton 85 are both excellent
warm-season grasses and they will provide
the high quality hay and pasture required for
hoses if properly managed. And this is not a
myth-it is a fact!
Burton, G. 1948. Coastal
Circular 10, Georgia
yield, nutrient traits, intake, and digestion by
growing beef steers.
Marsalis, M.A., V.G. Allen, C.P. Brown, and
C.J. Green. 2007. Yield and nutritive value of
forage bermudagrasses grown using
subsurface drip irrigation in the southern
plains. Crop Sci. 47:1246.
Mislevy, P. and F.G. Martin. 1998.
Comparison of Tifton 85 and other Cynodon
grasses for production and nutritive value
under grazing. Soil Crop Soc. Florida Proc.
Burton and Hatley, 2005. Warm-season
grass breeding. University of Georgia.
College of Ag. Environ. Sci. (electronic
Burton,G.W., R.N. Gates, G.M. Hill. 1993.
Registration of 'Tifton 85' bermudagrass.
Crop Sci. 33:644.
Johnson, C.R., B.A. Reiling, P. Mislevy, and
M.B. Hall. 2001. J. Anim. Sci. 79:2439.
Mandevu, P., J.W. West, G.M. Hill, R.N.
Gates, R.D. Hatfield, B.G. Mullinix, A.H.
Parks, and A.B. Caudle. 1999. Comparison of
Tifton 85 and Coastal bermudagrass for