It's obvious irrigated pastures can help boost the amount of beef produced per acre. But at what cost? Ag economist Dick Clark and range and forage specialist Jerry Volesky, both with the University of Nebraska, say that's an important factor to consider.

This duo agrees that there are a lot of possibilities in utilizing irrigated pastures suited to cow-calf pairs and/or stockers.

“You just need to use your imagination,” Volesky says.

Possible examples include:

  • Grazing pairs from April through July and then moving them to native pastures, stockpiling the irrigated forage and returning to those pastures in fall.

  • Grazing stockers ahead of pairs in the irrigated system.

  • Running pairs on the irrigated pastures from May to August, weaning the calves and putting them back on the irrigated pastures and moving the cows to native range.

Once you have an idea how irrigated pastures might fit your operation, you'll need to weigh the economics of making irrigated pastures pay. Clark says producers need to consider three cost factors, including: the cost of pasture establishment, annual operating costs for grazing and maintaining the pasture, and the opportunity cost of alternative uses on that land.

First-year pasture establishment costs can run about $175/acre (including seed cost, fencing and water development). When looking at the big picture, however, Clark says that may be a worthwhile investment.

“When properly managed, some of these pastures can last 25 years,” he says. “So if you spread that cost out, you may only be looking at a cost of about $12/acre over that time period.”

But economics isn't the only factor to consider when deciding if irrigated pastures fit your operation. Volesky says that management and how you intend to utilize your irrigated pastures also need to be evaluated.

“You must have an understanding of irrigation, fertilization and grazing management as well as the types of forages you intend to plant, grow and graze,” he says.

Volesky lists these factors to consider:

  1. Choose your forages carefully. Volesky reports that cool-season perennials are typically the most popular species in irrigated grazing programs. Most commonly, he says, irrigated pastures are mixtures of orchardgrass, smooth brome, meadow brome, creeping foxtail and alfalfa. But, he adds, “Annuals can be successful, too, especially if used in a double-cropping system.”

    As an example, he says, a cool-season annual, such as wheat, rye or oats, could be planted first, followed by a warm-season annual such as forage sorghum or sudangrass.

  2. Do a good job in establishing the pasture. “Pay attention to planting dates, seedbed preparation, planting depth, etc. It's important to get the job done right the first time,” Volesky says.

  3. Manage your irrigation. “Irrigation done at higher frequency and lesser amount is typically best, because cool-season grasses have a relatively shallow root system.”

    Volesky suggests irrigating every five to seven days and ¾" at a time. Obviously, in a dry year, watering needs will increase.

  4. Manage your grazing. “Some type of rotational grazing with irrigated systems is important. We've found that five to six paddocks with a rest of 25 to 30 days works well,” Volesky reports.

But he adds that flexibility and paying attention to stubble height are important in deciding when to move animals.

“Too many pastures are grazed too short, like within 2-3" of the ground,” he says.

A stubble height of 6-9” is better and will result in more rapid regrowth and greater total forage production, he says.