Summer annuals evaluated at University of Idaho’s Nancy Cummings Research and Extension Center
The Nancy M. Cumming Research, Extension and Education Center at Salmon, ID, is part of the University of Idaho educational system, and committed to research that will help ranchers find ways to make their grazing management more profitable. John Hall, Extension Beef Specialist and Superintendent, says that one of their projects has been an evaluation of different forages that might do well in this arid region. On irrigated ground where stockmen have gone to pivot irrigation, for instance, there is a lot of wasted area in the dry corners.
The original plan in 2008 was to have a few demonstration plots, looking at plant species such as crested wheatgrass and some of the millets that might do will with limited water and still produce good forage.
“Ranchers in Wyoming have been fairly successful using millets in their geographic region, producing one to two tons per acre, even on dry land,” says Hall. Most of the irrigated ground where pivots are used consist of good soil, and the dry corners might grow an excellent dryland forage.
“Our summer annual project worked very well last year and we’re repeating it this year,” Hall said. “Last year we looked at five different species of summer annuals that might grow well in dry conditions.
“What began as a look at species that would grow well in the dry corners on pivot-irrigated ground, morphed into a project where we were also looking at possible opportunities to increase forage production for fall grazing, or when renovating a hayfield. For example, this year we have a hayfield we are renovating and we’re going to take our first cutting off and then no-till plant some summer annuals.”
The annuals will produce forage that could be used as pasture after frost, or could be used for late summer grazing.
“The thing about summer annuals that we’re looking at is how they perform in either wet or dry conditions,” says Hall. “When irrigation was available on the 60 day growing season we had last year, we were getting between two and three tons per acre from those.”
Another part of the research looked at how these species would do in dry conditions. The plants were given about a month of irrigation to get them up and growing, then on August 1 the water was turned off on about 1/3 of the plots, to simulate what often happens on many ranches in this part of the country when irrigation water is no longer available in late summer.
“We looked at yields under those conditions. The best ones were the sorghum-sudan grasses (which were also one of the best yielding species under irrigation). We had some grazing corn that we tried, but it was a very poor stand because it doesn’t work very well to plant no-till corn with a grain drill instead of a corn planter,” explains Hall. “We’ll do a little better this year and get ourselves a corn planter. Even so, the corn did all right – as long as it had water early. We thought that probably both the sorghum and the corn did well in the dry conditions because they are both deep rooted. My theory is that those two species have a deep enough root system that they are getting down to some moisture that’s lower in the soil profile.”
The ranch will continue this project and also has a new graduate student coming this fall, who is interested in the dry corners project.
Future projects include looking at range grazing. Kelly Crane, a range specialist with the University of Idaho, will try to put in some plots on the high, dry benches of the ranch. This project will look at what can be grown in dry corners or other places where there are fairly fertile soils but no irrigation. Crane will be looking at some perennial types of grasses rather than annuals, for permanent pastures that might do well in dry summers.
There will be other grazing experiments in the future, but first the ranch needs to put up a lot of new fences.
“My goal, for our long term grazing research, will be to look at range, but right now we don’t have any rangeland associated with this station,” says Hall. “I’d like to find some range and be able to put a portion of our cows out on range during some part of the year, during summer or fall, to more closely mimic the standard ranch management in Idaho. The other group of cows would stay in, on the irrigated ground. We try to maximize our management of the intensive irrigated system. The rationale behind both of these projects is to find how we can lower feed costs for cattle – through grazing management, extending the grazing season, utilizing all possible options for grazing cattle. That’s the primary goal.”
On the irrigated side, the goal is to find options for people who may get pushed off a range, or decide to run cattle at home. As ranchers get older they may not want to go out to the range with their cattle, since there’s a lot more work and management involved in using the range.
“If an older rancher wants to pull back and run fewer cows, how can he/she still maximize the production and make a living during retirement, and not kill themselves doing it?” says Hall.
People need some options, and ways to go into these new methods and make them work.
“This particular grazing research, and one of my philosophies, is that instead of coming up with a particular system and saying that it’s the way people should do it – my opinion is that we need to create systems that have portions that people can look at and say that this piece might work for them,” Hall says. “They might be willing to try one part of it – whether it be early weaning or putting in summer annuals, or instead of putting the herd on summer range sending the dry cows out to fall range (after weaning), or whatever. This is my hope for the type of research we do here. We don’t ever want to get to the point where we tell people that such and such is the only way it should be done. Our goal is to provide information they can use – and adapt to their own situation.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News