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Should I Irrigate My Pastures?

Click to download this useful resource.
Click to download this useful resource.

This article is an excerpt from the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative publication “Extending Your Grazing Season and Reducing Stored Feed Needs” by Dr. Don Ball, Auburn University, Ed Ballard, University of Illinois Extension, Mark Kennedy, State Grazing Lands Specialist, NRCS, Missouri, Dr. Garry Lacefield, University of Kentucky, and Dr. Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin-Madison.  We’ll be sharing more excerpts in future issues.  You can also download the publication here.

Pastures often become unproductive or go dormant in mid- to late summer due to lack of water. Irrigation may relieve the situation, but before proceeding with this alternative, landowners should thoroughly consider all the issues that contribute to irrigation system cost:

■ Is there an inexpensive source of water available? Water sources vary greatly in cost, so this should be carefully checked. During hot weather, some plants require approximately 0.25 to 0.30 inches per day. Check with a knowledgeable irrigation specialist for water requirements in your area. One inch on one acre is 27,158 gallons, so the water supply must be able to supply a minimum of 7,000 to 8,000 gallons per acre per day(after evaporation and other losses) to be effective for irrigating any field or pasture.

Photo courtesy of big

■ Pumping from streams frequently requires a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and/or the state agency or regional water district responsible for natural resources. If irrigation is desired by a certain time, there should be an assessment as to how long it will likely take to acquire permits and install equipment. Permit time can be up to 12 months, depending on the on-site physical situation.

■ Will irrigation of pastures be cost effective? The quantity and value of forage produced on average must be enough to justify installing the system plus the expense of operating it. Typically, irrigation must be used hundreds of hours each year for many years to be economical.

Photo courtesy of Missouri Cooperative Extension

■ Irrigation equipment application efficiency should be considered. Newer pivot irrigation equipment may have 85% or higher efficiency (% of water pumped that is made available to plant), but older systems, particularly traveling guns, may only be 60% efficient. Lower efficiency means more water and more pumping energy is needed to get water application rates and yield responses compa- rable to higher efficiency systems.

■ Labor to operate irrigation equipment should be considered. Pivot irrigation systems are the least labor intensive at about 0.0125 hour per acre. Traveling gun or tow irrigation systems may need ten times that (about 0.15 hour per acre).

■ With irrigation automatically comes the need for balanced and often increased fertilization. Irrigating malnourished pastures is a waste.

■ In some areas, soil types, or situations, soil compaction caused by the hooves of grazing animals (which is greatly intensified when soil is wet) or eventual soil salinization may be a concern.

If these issues can be resolved, pasture irrigation may be a consideration, but it should be a long-term commitment, not a “knee-jerk” reaction to one or two years of drought.

Photo by Murray Close

Forages respond to irrigation at any vegetative stage. The yield increase is linear to the total water applied up to the amount needed by the plant for daily growth. The critical question is whether the extra pasture forage that may be produced on average will be worth the cost. An effective pasture irrigation system is generally not much less expensive per acre than an effective row crop irrigation system.

Need more about grazing on irrigated pasture?  Dave Scott of ATTRA did a great series last summer.  Here are links to the articles in this series:

Intensive Grazing on Irrigated Pastures

Setting Up an Intensive Grazing System That Works – Pasture Rest Periods

Paddock Grazing Periods in Irrigated Pastures

Putting It All Together – Or Calling the Dance


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