Strong corn prices and a need to revitalize his forage stand led Atkinson, NE, producer Gordon Dvorak to move from irrigated pasture to grain production in 2010-11. But the Atkinson, NE, farmer/rancher says he’s going back to forage in 2012 to allow his 300-head Red Angus cow-calf pairs to gain weight faster and keep them closer to home while utilizing fewer acres.

Without the center-pivot irrigated pastures, Dvorak typically ran short of grass from mid-July through August, which is usually a dry period in his region. Under the pivot, he used a six-paddock circular design that featured an underground water system with three hydrants. Ramps lifted irrigation tires over his single-wire, high-tensile electric fence.

“A benefit of irrigated grasses is that you keep desirable grass in front of the cattle and they continue to grow and flesh out because they keep eating,” Dvorak says. “There’s no mid-summer slump. Before I started irrigating, I was always running out of grass between July and August. With the irrigation, I’m usually able to graze through the end of November.”

Higher stocking rates

Jerry D. Volesky, range and forage specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln West Central Research Center in North Platte, says higher stocking rates are one of the benefits of irrigated pasture.

“With irrigators, producers can complement forage resources, such as extending the grazing season, putting cattle on pasture earlier in the spring, and keeping them there later in fall. It’s possible that irrigation would produce higher-quality forage, too,” Volesky says.

Dvorak’s forage mix consisted of wheat grass, timothy, orchard grass, foxtail and alfalfa. It took him three years to define a grazing schedule that optimized the forage he produced.

“The first two years, I put the cattle on the grass when it was about 10-in. tall,” Dvorak says. “But the protein was too strong at that point. Gains weren’t what they should be. By the third year, I waited till the grass was 12 or 14 in. high. That improved gains quite a bit.

“It seems crazy, but you have to be careful not to get too many alfalfa, clover and legumes in the seed mix or the protein is too rich. I had the prettiest grass, but it was too potent for the cattle. With that protein buildup in their system and a hot streak of weather, you can have toxicity problems,” he says.

Dvorak’s grasses initially tested around 24% protein. Experts say 16% is a better level.

Volesky says it’s highly important for beef producers to understand how to manage irrigated pasture. He says a rotational grazing plan is essential to obtain the best results and capitalize on inputs for irrigated pastures. He recommends producers research which grazing design best suits their resources and production goals.

“Forage stands will decline somewhere between 5-15 years after they’re established,” Volesky says. “It makes sense to take a year or two and raise a crop on those acres. If a producer isn’t crazy about farming, he could rent the land out for a couple years and then come back and reseed it.

“The longevity of any pasture depends on how it’s managed while in grass. Managing a fertilizer plan is important to maintaining forage quality. It only makes sense to maximize forage growth and quality after investing in irrigation,” Volesky says.

Managing the water is important, too, he adds. “Some areas experience water restrictions. You can grow a lot of grass with limited water. It just requires careful scheduling and planning.”

Start with a pencil

Strong grain prices over the past three years have prompted numerous western Nebraska farmers to convert former pasture to crop production. Volesky admits that the economics of irrigated pasture can be challenging; he advocates beginning by working the pencil.

“There are a lot of angles to consider,” Volesky says. “Are you looking for more pasture or need more forage? Is irrigating the pasture cheaper than renting more pasture or buying more forage? Will the end result enhance the overall productivity of your ranch or farm? Could the land provide more profit by producing crops?

“Those are just some of the questions that need to be answered before any decisions are made. It’s not unusual for irrigated pasture acres to be cycled back and forth as grain and cattle markets fluctuate,” he says.

The degree of success beef producers experience with irrigated pasture varies widely. Among the many factors influencing irrigated pasture productivity are soils and site selection, forage stand, irrigation efficiency, fertilization, grazing management and livestock response.

“Genetics is an important part of it,” Dvorak says. “The better your genetics are suited to a grass-fed setting, for instance, the more successful the irrigated pasture will be. There seems to be a growing demand for that type of genetics and increasing understanding of the concept of matching genetics to production resources.”

Dvorak expects to return his 160 acres to irrigated pasture next year, once the land is revitalized through a two-year crop production cycle.

“It’s been about seven years since we last seeded the pasture, so the forage stand was getting a little thin,” Dvorak says of his move to grain farming.

Volesky adds, “It’s hard to say where the most profit will be, with both strong cattle and corn prices. If anyone’s looking for a way to expand grazing capacity, irrigation will make all the difference.”