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Dry weather prompts specialists to suggest planting additional crops for grazing

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Despite last week’s storms, it’s extremely dry in many areas of this region. Some are even comparing it to the beginnings of the drought of 2012. University of Nebraska Extension Specialist Aaron Berger wants ranchers to be prepared for the worst this year, so he suggests they consider planting some type of alternate crop that can be used for grazing. 

“The time frame we need additional forage will help determine which annual forages to plant,” Berger says. “Also, the forages that will work best for us will be dependent upon the resources we have, the needs of our livestock and what management we are willing to provide from a grazing standpoint.”

Ranchers may also need to consider what equipment they have available to plant and harvest the crop and what the land will be used for after the crop is harvested.

Options for planting

Berger said the options are nearly endless when looking at what to plant. 

There are cool and warm season annuals, legumes, perennial cool and warm season grasses and cool and warm season broadleafs. Mostly, producers need to determine which of these forages will fit best into their production system. 

Limited water may play a role in establishing these crops, Berger says. 

“We need to plant a crop that can utilize the water we have and make the most efficient use of it. Water, along with soil fertility, will allow the plant to maximize its potential,” he explains.


Looking at a water use and forage yield chart provided by the University of Nebraska, Berger says alfalfa is the least efficient water user on the list. However, he thinks alfalfa can still be a good choice if producers think about when to apply water to the alfalfa to capture the most value. The goal is to harvest the most pounds of alfalfa per inch of water applied.

“There are advantages to using alfalfa as a limited water use crop,” the Extension specialist continues. 

It’s a drought tolerant, long-term perennial, so it doesn’t need to be replanted every year. It can produce high quality forage, has multiple harvest opportunities and doesn’t need nitrogen, he notes.

“There are some dryland, long-term alfalfa fields in the High Plains region,” Berger says. “Alfalfa is ideal for some producers because it doesn’t need to be reseeded every year and can complement other forages.”

Irrigating alfalfa

Berger shares some research from Colorado State University that shows when irrigating alfalfa was the most efficient. Scientists studied irrigating alfalfa full season, stopping irrigation after the second cutting, irrigating through the first cutting only and irrigating in the fall and spring.

“They found the most efficient use of water was stopping irrigation after the second cutting,” he says. 

This method yielded 91 percent of full irrigation over the entire season. 

“Based on that data, if we have a limited water use season, we may want to look at irrigating the first and second cutting and then shutting the water off,” Berger says. 

“The advantage is it will utilize the water when the plant is most water use efficient,” he adds. “Transpiration rates are also less in the spring than the summer because of the warm, dry conditions and low humidity.”

Perennial grasses

Cool season perennial grasses are another option, since they are the most water-use efficient from April through May. These grasses will also have some additional fall growth in late August through September, if temperatures are cool enough. 

“It will allow the plant to develop some root growth, so it can launch again in the spring,” Berger says. 


Cool season annuals like oats, spring triticale, Italian ryegrass, barley and field peas are also water use efficient, Berger says. He recommends planting these crops in mid- to late July or early August so they can provide some growth in early to mid-fall. 

Warm season annuals like millet, sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, sorghum, sudangrass, crabgrass and corn should be seeded in late spring or early summer for fall grazing. 

Foxtail millet is typically the cheapest to plant, Berger says. It is also the most water efficient in June and July. 

If producers plan to graze their millet, Pearl millet may be a better choice. 

“It will have some regrowth for a second harvest, and it doesn’t have the prussic acid issues like sorghum sudan,” he explains.

Sorghum-sudan hybrids are typically seeded around June 1 and are known as a good silage crop. 

“It will produce more dry matter than foxtail,” Berger says, “but, it is more expensive to plant. Its most efficient water use period is in July.”

One thing to keep in mind no matter which forage is planted, Berger says, is to remember that as yield goes up, quality typically goes down. 

“It is important to harvest these forages when they are the most optimum in both production and quality,” he says.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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