Irrigated Pasture Management

By Heather Smith Thomas   |   Angus Beef Bulletin EXTRA

With well-planned intensive management, irrigated pasture can often be more productive than the same ground used for haying. Some ranchers are looking at a change from haying to grazing irrigated fields.

Randy Wiedmeier, University of Missouri (MU) Extension livestock specialist, spent 25 years at Utah State University working with range and forage projects.

“We were trying to address some of the problems western ranchers face with public lands. We looked at ways they could extend private grazing as an alternative when they were unable to utilize their range permits or if numbers were cut,” he says.

“We looked at maximizing irrigated pastures and tried to determine which grasses would work best in our Great Basin. We also did some work on winter grazing and were able to maintain a cow-calf pair on 1 acre each year with year-round grazing,” he says.

“We evaluated all aspects of each (grass) species, including ease of establishment, productivity of the grass and its ability to withstand management-intensive grazing.”

According to Wiedmeier, fescue was the best grass for the job. It isn’t the most palatable, but if it’s the only grass available, cattle will eat it.

“We were able to harvest about 12,000 pounds (lb.) of dry matter per acre for a 180-day grazing period in the Cache Valley in Utah with the tall fescues,” says Wiedmeier.

Fescue is a hardy, productive grass, and this is why much of the cow-calf industry in the United States uses it.

“When we looked at carrying capacity,” he says, “we could graze a cow-calf pair (with a fairly fast-growing calf and a fairly productive cow, allowing 46 lb. of dry-matter intake per cow-calf pair per day) on 1.9 acres for 180 days. This is using management-intensive grazing in which we moved the cattle every day, utilizing poly-wire temporary fencing. The cattle were on and off the paddocks very quickly.”

Many producers don’t want to move cattle daily, but it can pay off and extend the grazing season. “Intensive rotation will increase carrying capacity by 40% to 50% compared with other systems. It all boils down to profit per acre,” says Wiedmeier.

If a person can put up seven tons per acre per year at $200 per ton for good alfalfa hay (and some years it is worth less than that), this would be $1,400 per acre before you deduct the costs of irrigation, machinery and all the other costs involved in making hay.

“By the time you take at least $600 an acre off for putting the hay up, you might make $800 an acre return. With a cow-calf production system you might be looking at $1,000 per acre return,” he says.

If a person has to replace older machinery, this expense would take a big chunk out of the profit for haying. If some ranchers could eliminate machinery costs, they might be money ahead.

“I was raised in an area in Montana where we put up hay all summer and fed hay all winter, sometimes from October through May. Putting up hay is always risky with the weather. It costs just as much to put up mediocre hay as good-quality hay. Pasturing takes the risks out of this equation. We were pleased to have a group of cattle for three years at the Ag Experiment Station in Logan, Utah, that never received any hay, grazing year-round. The economics of that looked very good,” says Wiedmeier.

On many western ranches, especially those that have less-than-perfect hayfields or odd-shaped meadows along a stream, it might be more profitable raising cattle on the land than hay. Marginal fields and pastures can be improved tremendously by intensive grazing management, greatly increasing the carrying capacity.

Editor’s Note: Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer and cattlewoman from Salmon, Idaho.