Alternative Forage: The challenges and opportunities

On June 28th, Western Landowners Alliance convened the second webinar in our ongoing Summer Water Webinar Series. The program covered the challenges and opportunities associated with growing alternative forages and experimenting with drought-resilient crops. Greg Peterson of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance (CAWA), Landan Wilson of Montezuma County, CO, and Phil Brink of Colorado Cattlemen’s Association shared their knowledge and experience. 

Alternative Forage and Why it Matters to the West 

With over 50% of the water in the Colorado River Basin dedicated to growing forage for livestock, the potential impact of alternative crops on the region’s drought resilience is immense. As western lands grapple with ongoing drought, it becomes increasingly clear that solutions must focus on doing more with less water. The recent alternative forage webinar highlighted the research and lessons associated with these drought-resilient forage varieties planted in an effort to sustain producers through years of water shortage. These discussions are critical not only for understanding the farm and soil-level implications but also for addressing the broader challenges associated with water management decisions. 

Drought Resiliency Projects in Colorado  

Greg Peterson, executive director of CAWA, opened the webinar by highlighting their recent work in distributing funds to farmers and ranchers to explore innovative agricultural practices, including those related to growing drought-resilient crops. Other projects cover various needs, including soil practices, livestock management and innovative irrigation techniques. Peterson emphasized the importance of these projects in areas facing severe water shortages, such as the Rio Grande, Republican River Basin, and parts of the Western Slope. These initiatives aim to provide farmers with the tools and resources needed to adapt to changing water availability and maintain productive agricultural practices. 

One notable example is the work being done in Grand County, where local irrigators are combating the dominance of smooth brome grass in high-elevation meadows. By using heavy equipment to disrupt the sod layer, they are planting warm-season grasses and other crops on a large scale, demonstrating a proactive approach to enhancing species diversity and improving forage quality. 

Longer-term shifts that could be counted on to make more water available to other users in the basin will require considerable changes to agricultural markets and infrastructure that are beyond any individual farm family to address.

Lessons from the Farm 

Landan Wilson, a farmer from Montezuma County, shared his experiences experimenting with alternative forages to cope with water shortages. Wilson and his father, Brian, farm 2,000 acres, primarily alfalfa, which they ship to dairies in Texas and New Mexico. They would prefer to sell their crop locally, but there are no large buyers (feedlots, dairies, etc.) in southern Colorado. The recent years of inconsistent water supply prompted them to explore crops requiring less water but providing similar returns. 

The Wilson’s irrigation water allocation from the Dolores Project is measured in acre-inches, (referred to as inches), with their full allocation measuring 22 inches. In 2021, severe drought meant they only received 1.7 inches of water, drastically reducing their irrigation capabilities. (Brian remarked that in 2002, the previous worst drought year he had experienced, they still received more than six inches of water.) In response, they experimented with alternative forages such as wheat, barley, and oats, which require less water than alfalfa. Despite the lower yields compared to alfalfa, these forages proved to be a viable option, allowing them to continue farming without investing in new equipment. 

Financial analysis revealed that while alfalfa remains more profitable, the alternative forages provided a crucial lifeline during drought years despite the troubles of sourcing buyers for their product. Their experience also highlighted the supply chain barriers to more “permanent” crop-switching: while they had hoped that switching to grain crops for direct human consumption (i.e. wheat) would be financially viable, a shortage of local buyers/processors and storage infrastructure meant they had to take the price that was offered when the crop was ready, less than the forage crop prices they could get from dairies.  

Improving Species Diversity and Soil Health 

Phil Brink provided an in-depth look at a specific drought resilience project aimed at improving species diversity and soil health in high mountain meadows. This project focuses on addressing the challenges posed by smooth brome grass, which forms dense mats that limit soil diversity and productivity. 

Brink detailed the process of using heavy tillage to disrupt the sod-bound conditions, followed by planting interim crops to enhance species diversity. The project objectives include improving drought resilience, increasing yield, and maintaining high-quality forage while potentially reducing fertilizer needs. 

Initial results showed promising signs of increased species diversity and improved soil conditions. However, the project also highlighted the complexity of managing soil health and the need for ongoing monitoring and adaptation. Brink emphasized the importance of a holistic approach, incorporating soil tests and samples to guide fertilization practices and ensure optimal crop performance. 

No silver bullet 

Alfalfa production has become something of a bogeyman for Colorado River watchers, because the crop is notoriously “thirsty.” But farmers insist it is a “good crop” and for good reasons: it grows reliably with few non-water inputs in the region’s harsh climate, fixes nitrogen in the soil, has ready and profitable markets in U.S. dairies and feedlots and can be baled and stored until prices are right. Still, drought pressure in recent years has pushed many farmers to experiment with less water-intensive crops. Longer-term shifts that could be counted on to make more water available to other users in the basin will require considerable changes to agricultural markets and infrastructure that are beyond any individual farm family to address. The impacts of crop-switches and irrigation changes on soil health, local precipitation patterns, wildlife and river systems is also just beginning to be studied directly and results so far have varied widely based on conditions and locations. In other words, alternative forage crops are likely to be part, but not all or even most, of adaptation strategies to a drier, more water-stretched West. 

Up Next 

In the next webinar in the series, we’ll tackle another hot topic in the water world: how do the West’s headwaters forests effect the water balance in the region’s rivers and landscapes? We’ll hear about the Headwaters of the Colorado Initiative’s (HOC) efforts to enhance watershed health and learn how the intersection of healthy forests and rivers can benefit all water users. 

If you’re looking for ways to get involved in your own watershed, or are curious to know how other landowners are improving theirs, join us for this panel and gain insights into the science, partnerships, and projects of a regional watershed collaborative.   

As the Western Water Resources Coordinator for the Western Landowners Alliance, Jake provides landowners and collaborative partners information on water and related resources across the West. Before joining the WLA team, he worked as the Policy Communications Coordinator for a grassroots agriculture advocacy organization. Jake is an avid fly fisher, skier, and cyclist who loves exploring all the West offers.

Comments (1)

  • Evaline Woodrey

    I am a member of the Native Prairie Association of Texas. I know that the native grasses found in a prairie are drought tolerant, grow without auxiliary water and require no chemicals or fertilizer. They also are high in nutrients. Why are they not included in this discussion?


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