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Farmers may start looking at irrigated grass as substitute for corn

Written by Gayle Smith

As corn prices continue to flounder in a stagnant marketplace, farmers could start considering irrigated grass as an alternative crop. With cash rental rates for pasture continuing to climb in a demand-driven market, irrigated grass could become a valuable cash crop.

According to Jerry Volesky, range and forage specialist with the University of Nebraska, pasture is in high demand, and grass prices continue to skyrocket.

Cash rental rates were around $10 a month for a cow/calf pair in 1994 for irrigated grass. Today, that same piece of grass could demand upwards of $50 a month in rental rates.

Lower commodity prices are also making irrigated grass more appealing to some producers. 

Managing grass

Once the grass is planted, management is the key, and the marketing possibilities unlimited.

However, Volesky says producers need to do some preparation, like determining what their grazing or hay needs are, whether they plan to use the grass within the operation and selecting a site that can be fenced for livestock and has the potential for water development.

Other important considerations are selecting the right forage and establishing it, irrigation and fertilizer and, lastly, grazing management and economics.

Varieties to plant

Producers have a choice of planting either cool-season or warm-season perennial grasses, but not a mixture of both.

“Mixing cool and warm season grasses can present some challenges to establishment, irrigation, fertilizer and grazing management,” Volesky says. “The cool season grasses will usually dominate over time.”

Instead, Volesky urges producers who want both types to plant both to do so on separate pieces of land.

Typically, those producers plant 75 percent of their land to cool season grasses and 25 percent to warm season grasses. He says producers will graze the cool season grasses from spring to early summer, giving the warm season grasses a chance to grow. From mid-summer on, they can rotate back and forth between the two types before ending up on the cool season grasses by fall.

Planting dates

Cool season grass mixtures can be planted in two separate time frames each year.

Spring planting dates are from March 20 to April 15. These grasses should be established and ready for haying or first grazing by mid-July. Volesky expects about 50 percent production of the established stand this first year.

The disadvantage of early spring planting is weed control, since weed growth is much more vigorous in the spring and early summer months, he says.

Producers may find it more advantageous to plant their cool season irrigated grass mixture in the fall between Aug. 10 and Sept. 10.

“The first haying or grazing would be in late May,” Volesky explains. “Producers can expect 75 to 85 percent of production of an established stand.”

“The plants will germinate in the fall and grow to three to six inches by winter. They will rapidly grow again in the spring,” he notes.

Standard mix

Producers have several choices when choosing a cool-season irrigated grass mixture.

The standard four-way grass mix of orchardgrass, smooth brome, meadow brome and creeping foxtail is easy to establish, Volesky says. Producers may want to add alfalfa or another type of irrigated legume to the mixture, which adds nitrogen to the soil and promotes vigorous grass growth.

Although some producers may be concerned about bloat, Volesky says the key is controlling the amount of alfalfa added to the mixture.

He recommends one to two pounds of alfalfa per acre, which should become 10 to 20 percent of the mixture. Producers could also plant red clover, ladino – also known as white clover, milkvetch or Birdsfoot trefoil instead of alfalfa. Birdsfoot trefoil is bloat-safe because it contains high amounts of lignin.

Other options

Intermittent wheatgrass species have also been planted in irrigated areas with a lot of success. However, Volesky notes that while these varieties produce good spring grass in May and early June, they don’t produce as well in the heat of the summer.

Other varieties and mixtures of cool-season grasses are Tuscany tall fescue and Hykor festulolum, which is a tall fescue ryegrass hybrid with high production. Perennial ryegrasses will establish easily and quickly and persist longer, Volesky says. Wild rye and timothy could also be successfully included in a mixture.

Notes in planting

In a University of Nebraska study looking at these cool-season grass mixtures, Volesky reports that once they were established, most of these grasses could produce upwards of eight tons per acre in a given year.

On a final note, the range scientist says mixtures of cool-season grasses have an advantage over single species, especially in plant diversity and grazing.

“They are more adaptable to variable soils or soil moisture conditions across the field,” he says. “There are also differences in the growth patterns of species across the season and in their ability to establish and spread. They also show differences in persistence, disease, insect resistance and winter hardiness.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..