Juan Guerrero’s vision in the early 1990s to develop new summer forages for desert agriculture has evolved into an 18,000-acre kleingrass industry in California’s Imperial and Riverside counties.

About 90 percent of kleingrass, Panicum coloratum L., grown is cut for hay for dairy cow feed and exported through the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the Orient.

Guerrero planted grass test plots at the University of California’s (UC) Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville in 1993. Members of a Japanese dairy cooperative visited the trials a year later just after baling. They were thrilled with the hay. A new niche market for Southern California growers was born.

“The Japanese looked at the Kleingrass and liked it,” said Guerrero, a farm advisor who recently retired following a 25-year career with UC Cooperative Extension, Imperial County. The group said, “The kleingrass looks good, it’s fine stemmed, and will be a great fit into our market,” he reflected.

A local grower began growing kleingrass for the new export market. Today an estimated 200 farmers grow kleingrass in the Imperial Valley, and 15,000 acres of kleingrass were grown in Imperial County in 2008.

Kleingrass is a perennial, drought-tolerant African grass that thrives in hot climates. Guerrero estimates about 40,000 acres of kleingrass are grown in the Lower Colorado River Basin from Mexico north through California and Arizona and into Nevada. Guerrero has fielded phone calls from southern San Joaquin Valley farmers interested in the crop.

Of the 174,000 tons of kleingrass hay grown in Imperial County in 2008, annual yields averaged 11.72 tons per acre, according to the Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner’s Web site. The hay sold for about $163/ton (2008 prices).

Riverside County growers harvested almost 3,000 acres of kleingrass in 2008 with an 8.6 ton/acre yield, according to the county ag commissioner.

The two most popular kleingrass varieties are Selection 75 and Verde. Growers harvest about four to five cuttings annually. The plant grows 3-4 feet high.

Most of the kleingrass destined for the Orient is shipped to dairies in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, says Guerrero. Lower-quality kleingrass is used at local feedlots and given to dry dairy cows. The forage is toxic to horses and sheep.

Guerrero says long-stemmed kleingrass is preferred by Japanese dairymen whose milk production practices require fibrous forage to extend cows’ milking abilities. Sudangrass is also a popular grass hay consumed by Asian cows, yet the animals consume the stems, not the leaves. With kleingrass the entire stem is consumed.

“Kleingrass is giving some competition to alfalfa in the Imperial Valley,” Guerrero said.

The Lower Colorado River Basin has the most alfalfa and forage acreage in the world. About 1 million acres of alfalfa are grown in California. Kleingrass is easier to grow than alfalfa, but is harder to establish, Guerrero says.

“Kleingrass is a perennial; once you put it in the ground it is there,” Guerrero said. “Some of the first kleingrass stands planted in the Imperial Valley remain in production today.”

Kleingrass grows best in heavy soils and on marginal ground. The grass’ salt tolerance is good. “It’s more forgiving than alfalfa, but not as much as Bermudagrass.”

If cut correctly the kleingrass protein content averages in the 8 percent to 9 percent range, Guerrero says, which is higher than the orchard and Timothy grasses, but lower than alfalfa and ryegrass. Kleingrass attracts few pests and diseases. Kleingrass is grown for hay, pasture and silage.

“It’s a long-term crop,” Guerrero said.

The best planting windows are a three-week period in March before watergrass weed development, plus in October and November. The plants require little care after planting. “From November to March you can take a vacation,” Guerrero said. “You can become a reverse snowbird.”

After emergence the remaining costs are for water, fertilizer and baling. Kleingrass requires about 5 acre-feet of water on average depending on the soil type.

Guerrero expects kleingrass production in the low desert to remain stable. “You will not make $300 to $400 an acre, but it will make money.”

Guerrero calls kleingrass a “niche market” for low desert farmers. When many planted crops are dormant, bermudagrass, kleingrass, and sudangrass keep growing.”

K & M Press Inc, El Centro, Calif., buys and sells about 5,000 tons of kleingrass annually.

“We double compress it, package it, and ship it,” said Manuel Ramirez, K & M’s managing partner. He said kleingrass quality is rated at premium #1 or #2 plus has several grade levels.

Crop diversification is why Curt Corda grows 300 acres of kleingrass on his C J Farms in the Mount Signal area of the Imperial Valley.

“I grow kleingrass to add diversity to my operation.” Corda averages four to five cuttings per year and yields about 10 tons/acre on average with Verde kleingrass. Corda also grows alfalfa, bermudagrass and sudangrass.

“A pro to growing kleingrass is almost no insect pressure,” Corda said. The cons include increased water and fertilizer requirements. “Kleingrass requires a lot of nitrogen. About 75 to 100 units of fertilizer are required to produce 1 ton of kleingrass.”

Water needs for Corda’s kleingrass range from 4.5 to 10 acre-feet annually depending on the soil. Corda sells the hay to companies which compress the hay for export. Kleingrass requires the same equipment used for growing other grasses.

Directly east of the Imperial Valley across the Colorado River is Yuma County, Ariz. Kurt Nolte, director, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, is unaware of kleingrass acreage in the county.

Guerrero says kleingrass is grown as far west in Arizona as Gila Bend in Maricopa County.

Frank Leutte, owner-operator, F & M Leutte Farms, Poston, Ariz., La Paz County, grows 36 acres of kleingrass in a heavy clay field; ground not suitable for alfalfa.

“If you grow alfalfa on the same ground it’s gone after three cuttings,” Leutte said.

He has cut the kleingrass three times this year and is expecting a fourth cutting. Cooler temperatures resulted in a disastrous first cutting.

Leutte sells his kleingrass to Hayday Farms in Blythe, Calif.

email: cblake@farmpress.com