WERA1014: Intensive Management of Irrigated Forages for Sustainable Livestock Production in the Western U.S.

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Inactive/Terminating

WERA1014: Intensive Management of Irrigated Forages for Sustainable Livestock Production in the Western U.S.

Duration: 10/01/2018 to 09/30/2023

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

As was the case during the previous five years (Campbell, 2012), livestock producers in the western U.S. continue to be impacted by drought that contributes to variability in forage production (USDA-NASS, 2016) and wildfires that directly consume forage (Schipani, 2017). As a result, they must often reduce stocking rates or remove livestock altogether from their public and private grazing lands until conditions improve and the land recovers. This adds to their financial pressures, as they often need to reduce their herd size, lease expensive private grazing lands, or buy and feed expensive hay (Wilson 2017). Western livestock producers will continue to experience these types of hardships as climate change/variability is expected to continue into the near future (Reeves et al., 2017). In order to remain economically viable over the long term, producers need access to a relatively consistent supply of forage. In the arid West, water is key to making that happen and the development of irrigated pastures combined with the use of management-intensive grazing is one strategy livestock producers in the western U.S. can implement to make their operations more sustainable. Members of WERA 1014 are also actively exploring the use of alternative legumes for organic dairy production and beef finishing, practices with the potential for increasing the profitability of existing western livestock operations. The continuing focus of WERA 1014 will be on the management of cultivated, irrigated forages for the production of both hay and pasture, with emphasis on improved pasture management as we feel that this has the greatest potential to improve the bottom line of western livestock producers.

Research and Extension outputs through the last cycle were numerous and provided valuable information to producers interested in implementing management-intensive grazing on irrigated pastures. For example, researchers at Utah State University, in conjunction with others on this committee, demonstrated the potential of birdsfoot trefoil to be used for pasture in the western U.S. (Curtis et al., 2012; MacAdam and Griggs, 2013A; MacAdam and Griggs, 2013b; MacAdam et al., 2013; Grabber et al., 2014; Hunt et al., 2014; Hunt et al., 2015; Brummer et al., 2016; Hunt et al., 2016). Researchers at the University of Wyoming have been evaluating the potential of various grasses and grass-legume mixtures to provide high quality forage for hay and/or grazing (Adjesiwor et al., 2017; Dhakal and Islam, 2013; Islam et al., 2013; Wehmeyer et al., 2013; Dhakal and Islam, 2014; Horn et al., 2014). As an alternative to perennial forages, researchers at Colorado State University have been investigating the potential of stockpiling various annual forages to extend the grazing season into the fall and early winter as a cost saving practice (Villalobos, 2015; Villalobos and Brummer, 2015a,b; Villalobos and Brummer, 2016).

The above references cover only a small proportion of the information gained and disseminated over the last 5 years by members of this committee. Numerous other projects conducted by researchers throughout the western states have also yielded beneficial information including the potential health benefits of finishing beef on legume pastures (Chail et al., 2016), the preference of sheep for different cultivars of barley and oats (Staudenmeyer et al., 2016), dry matter production of 39 grass entries over nine years (Wichman and Glunk, 2016), the preference of cattle for four clover species (Solomon and Scaglia, 2015), and the potential to use fenugreek as a forage crop in the western U.S. (Islam, 2013), to highlight a few.

Besides research activities, members of WERA 1014 continue to actively share research results through numerous individual and jointly conducted outreach programs. The overarching goal of these outreach programs is to assist livestock producers in the adoption of environmentally and economically sustainable forage and grassland management resulting in reduced feeding costs, improved production, and greater environmental sustainability. To assist with achieving this goal, members of WERA 1014 have authored several joint outreach publications (MacAdam et al., 2013; Downing et al., 2014; Brummer et al., 2016). In addition, a series of highly successful Pasture Management Professional Development Workshops were held from 2012 through 2015. These workshops were aimed at training professionals such as Extension Educators, Natural Resources Conservation Service field personnel, and agricultural consultants to be better enable them to deal with landowners on pasture related issues.  The workshops were held in Salmon, Idaho, Fort Collins, Colorado, Dallas, Oregon, Mt. Vernon, Washington, and Logan, Utah with about 30 participants in attendance at each for a total of 150 professionals trained.  Numerous members of this committee served as instructors. This activity was funded by a grant from Western SARE. As a follow-up to those successful workshops, several members of the committee compiled an overview of pasture and grazing management Extension programming in the Northwestern U.S., which was published in the Proceedings of the 10th International Rangeland Congress (Shewmaker et al., 2016).

Although significant strides have been made in both research and outreach activities by members of the committee, the use of intensively-managed irrigated pastures still remains relatively low in the West (Gerrish, 2004b) as well as in other parts of the U.S. (Winsten et al., 2011). In other parts of the world, it is recognized as a low-input, sustainable approach to livestock production and forms the basis for livestock production in New Zealand (Hodgson, 1990). Although adoption has been slow, interest in management-intensive grazing by U.S. producers continues to be strong as evidenced by continued participation in the Lost Rivers Grazing Academy, which is organized and taught each year by members of this committee from Idaho. As further evidence, faculty from Colorado State University implemented an irrigated pasture study this past year (2017) and hosted an inaugural field day in which about 100 individuals attended of which half were producers who expressed interest in implementing this practice on their operation.

The potential benefits of utilizing management-intensive grazing for beef production are numerous and include reduced production costs, increased animal output per acre, land use efficiency, environmental friendliness, such as reduced need for fertility inputs, increased carbon sequestration, and reduced runoff and wind erosion, and improved quality of life for farmers and ranchers (Gerrish, 2004a). While the conventional dairy industry continues to expand, there is also a thriving organic dairy industry in the West. Working in collaboration with Organic Valley dairy producers, WERA-1014 members demonstrated a 20% increase in milk production during mid-summer when cows grazed birdsfoot trefoil pastures compared with grass pastures. Cheese from the milk of birdsfoot trefoil-fed cows contained significantly more omega-3 fatty acids than the milk of grass-fed cows, and both contained more omega-3 fatty acids than cows fed a conventional TMR (MacAdam et al., 2015). These benefits appeal to many livestock producers as well as others interested in economically and environmentally sustainable livestock production in the western U.S. and will remain at the forefront of WERA 1014 activities over the next five years.

Many of the activities of WERA 1014 will be complimentary to the ongoing W2012 Multistate Research Project entitled: Enhancing management, production, and sustainability of grazing ruminants in extensive landscapes. This project is comprised primarily of animal and range scientists, and addresses the extensive management of rangeland production systems in the western U.S. It is common for ranches in the western U.S. to include private irrigated acreage used for hay and/or grazing as part of their overall production system, so aspects of our work are relevant to systems that depend primarily on rangeland and efforts will be made to coordinate with members of W2012.


  1. Conduct an annual review of current research and extension programming in the western region specific to cultivated, irrigated forage systems or as integrated components of rangeland forage-livestock systems, and compile/update a list to be shared among all participants.
  2. Based on the above review, identify emerging issues and opportunities related to cultivated, irrigated forages and forage-livestock systems in the western region, prioritize those issues, and then work cooperatively to develop regional proposals and apply for grants to support both research and outreach activities.
  3. Identify colleagues and stakeholders working with cultivated, irrigated forages and forage-livestock systems within the region for inclusion in the project, and mentor early-career colleagues.

Procedures and Activities

The annual meetings of WERA 1014 are held in conjunction with the annual meetings of the Pacific Northwest Forage Workers. These shared meetings have increased attendance at WERA 1014 and fostered the exchange of information among forage research and extension personnel, NRCS field and administrative personnel, forage industry representatives, and others interested in forage-livestock systems throughout the western U.S.

Objective 1 – Participants will be asked to submit a list of current research and extension activities from their state prior to each annual meeting. The purpose of compiling this list is several fold. First, it will keep all participants informed of what is going on in each state related to production and use of irrigated forages. By doing so, ideas and resources can be shared to avoid duplication of efforts. Examples include the sharing of PowerPoint presentations, ideas for effective field day activities, and making everyone aware of fact sheets that are available in each state. Second, this list will be used to identify gaps in the knowledge base concerning production and use of irrigated forages. From this list, research and extension priorities can be set.

Objective 2 – Based on the list of research and outreach priorities developed in objective 1, regional grant proposals will be developed and submitted for funding from such sources as Western SARE and pertinent USDA-NIFA programs. Several successful examples of this occurred during the previous project cycle. A cooperative project among participants from Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho investigated the potential of birdsfoot trefoil to enhance organic milk production. This project also resulted in the publication of two extension fact sheets. The very successful Pasture Management Professional Development Workshops mentioned above were a cooperative effort among participants from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. Because of the success of this program, additional funding will be sought during this project cycle to update and conduct more of these workshops throughout the West. As a final example, participants from Wyoming and Colorado were successful in obtaining a USDA-NIFA grant to study the impacts of potassium fertility on alfalfa production.

Objective 3 – Over the years, participants in this group have been very successful in soliciting participation at the annual meeting from industry representatives and field personnel from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. These individuals bring a different perspective to the table and help guide both research and extension activities conducted by this group. We will continue to develop these relationships and invite these individuals to our annual meeting.

The last part of this objective dealing with the mentoring of early-career colleagues is extremely important at this time. The reason is that there is a changing of the guard under way when it comes to forage specialists in the western U.S. Montana, Oregon, and Nevada have all seen recent retirements and the hiring of new forage specialists. Within the next 2 to 3 years, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon will undergo an additional 4 retirements. The loss in experience within this short period of time will be immense and it is imperative that as much of that accumulated knowledge as possible be transferred to the new specialists in the group. Besides the information that is shared at the annual meeting, each new specialist will be paired with one of the impending retirees as a mentor with the goal that they make contact several times per year by email, phone, or at other regional meetings so that they can informally discuss forage production issues pertinent to the western U.S. WERA-1014 benefits from the interests and expertise of new members while it serves as a forum and resource for all members.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Exchange of ideas, expertise and experience among members and guests will improve the quality of regional research and extension efforts.
  • Collaborations will develop among members to address regional research and extension objectives through grants, publications, and extension media and presentations.
  • Early career members will succeed in the development of relevant research and extension programs.
  • Access to diverse experience and expertise within the western region will focus effort on the most critical regional problems, and strengthen pasture-livestock research, teaching and extension programs.
  • Information and service provided to ranchers, dairy and forage producers, consultants, and consumers within the region will benefit from collaborations and shared expertise.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

Participants are currently conducting extension and other educational programs that distribute forage management information to producers, extension agents, consultants, and governmental agencies such as the NRCS. These programs are enhanced by the sharing of teaching methods, curricula, and research/demonstration data among participants from various western states.


The recommended Standard Governance for multistate research activities include the election of a Chair, a Chair-elect, and a Secretary. All officers are to be elected for at least two-year terms to provide continuity. Administrative guidance will be provided by an assigned Administrative Advisor and a NIFA Representative.

Literature Cited

Adjesiwor, A.T., M.A. Islam, V.D. Zheljazkov, J.P. Ritten, and A. Garcia y Garcia. 2017. Grass-legume seed mass ratios and nitrogen rates affect forage accumulation, nutritive value, and profitability. Crop Science. 57:1-13. doi: 10.2135/cropsci2016.09.0776.

Brummer, J.E., J.W. MacAdam, G. Shewmaker, and M.A. Islam. 2016. Establishing Birdsfoot Trefoil in the Mountain West. Utah State Univ. Ext. Fact Sheet AG/Forages/2016-02pr. Logan, UT. 9 pp.

Campbell, K. 2012. Wildfires force ranchers into tough choices. AgAlert. http://www.agalert.com/story/?id=4768

Chail, A., J.F. Legako, L.R. Pitcher, T.C. Griggs, R.E. Ward, S. Martini, and J.W. MacAdam. 2016. Legume finishing provides beef with positive human dietary fatty acid ratios and consumer preference comparable with grain-finished beef. Journal of Animal Science 94:2184-2197.

Curtis, K., J. MacAdam, and T. Knudsen. 2013. Annual costs to establish and maintain birdsfoot trefoil pastures in northern Utah, 2012. Electronic Bulletin AG/ Agribusiness/2013-01pr. Utah State University Cooperative Extension Service, Logan.

Dhakal, D. and M.A. Islam. 2013. Benefits from Grass–Legume Mixtures in Forage-Production Systems. 2013 Field Days Bulletin, University of Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station, pp. 25-26. Available at http://www.uwyo.edu/uwexpstn/_files/docs/2013-field-days-bulletin.pdf.

Dhakal, D. and M.A. Islam. 2014. Grass-Legume Mixtures for Improved Forage Yield, Forage Quality, and Soil Properties. 2014 Field Days Bulletin, University of Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station, pp. 73-74. Available at http://www.uwyo.edu/uwexpstn/_files/docs/2014-field-days-bulletin.pdf.

Downing, T., D.B. Hannaway, B. Randow, P. Berry, and X. Yang. 2014. Managing Dairy Grazing for More Milk and Profit. Oregon State University Extension Service EM 8412. 11 p.

Gerrish, J. 2004a. Benefits of Management-intensive Grazing. Illinois Livestock Trail, Univ. of Illinois Extension. http://livestocktrail.illinois.edu/pasturenet/paperDisplay.cfm?ContentID=6614.

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Grabber, J.H., H. Riday, K.A. Cassida, T.C. Griggs, D.H. Min, and J.W. MacAdam. 2014. Yield, morphological characteristics, and chemical composition of European and Mediterranean-derived birdsfoot trefoil cultivars grown in the colder continental USA. Crop Science 54: 1893-1901.

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Hunt, S.R., J.W. MacAdam, and T.C. Griggs. 2014. Lignification and tannin localization during the development of birdsfoot trefoil stems. Crop Science 54: 1876-1886.

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