Consider Forages This Spring If Water Is Limited

Using irrigated land for forage production would eliminate cost of establishing new crop every year.

Published on: Jan 30, 2013

Drought, declining water tables and legal issues are limiting the amount of irrigation water available to irrigators across Nebraska. Most producers are likely to start the 2013 season with depleted soil moisture.

If you don't have enough for a good grain crop, consider planting forages this spring, says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln forage specialist.

"Many irrigated acres may not receive enough water this summer to grow a good grain or root crop," according to Anderson. "Sometimes you can combine water allocated for several fields onto one field to get a crop, but that still leaves the other acres with little or no water."

Consider Forages This Spring If Water Is Limited
Consider Forages This Spring If Water Is Limited

Forage crops also need water for highest production, but at least some useful yield can be gathered when total water available is very low, he says.

If you expect water limits will continue for several years, a perennial forage would eliminate the cost and time of establishing a new crop each year, he suggests. "Switchgrass is a good choice because it's less expensive to plant, its primary water needs occur in early summer when water usually is available, and it can be managed for hay or pasture," Anderson says. "Other warm-season grass options include big or sand bluestem and Indian grass, especially for grazing."

With limited irrigation, some wheatgrasses, bromegrasses and alfalfa can work, but these cool-season plants respond best to water applied during spring. For some irrigators, water isn't available until after this most efficient time has passed.

For spring forage, if moisture is available, consider small grains like oats and spring-type varieties of rye, barley, and triticale, he recommends. Annual forages like pearl and foxtail millet, cane, teff and sorghum-sudangrass are relatively water efficient and will yield proportionately to the amount of water they receive.