Drought, heat challenging the West’s forage producers

Experts try to help alfalfa and forage growers grapple with a number of issues

Field of alfalfa plants.

Alfalfa grows in a lower-valley field in late May in Pershing County, Nevada. Photo by Steve Foster.

Drought, heat challenging the West’s forage producers

Experts try to help alfalfa and forage growers grapple with a number of issues

Alfalfa grows in a lower-valley field in late May in Pershing County, Nevada. Photo by Steve Foster.

Field of alfalfa plants.

Alfalfa grows in a lower-valley field in late May in Pershing County, Nevada. Photo by Steve Foster.

As wildfire smoke continues to fill the skies and drought grips the West, farmers are trying to cope with dwindling water supplies and do what they can to sustain profitable operations, this year and into the future. It’s a chess game, with Mother Nature proving a formidable opponent. Crop experts and researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno are trying to give producers a fighting chance. Alfalfa is still a major focus in state, with alfalfa being used to feed much of America’s dairy cows and livestock.


In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alfalfa is currently grown on about 6.8 million acres of cropland in 11 Western states each year, with its production in these states amounting to $8.5 billion in 2018. Last year, Nevada alone produced $209 million in hay, most of it alfalfa. When drought hits, it’s a domino effect, hitting farmers, then dairy and livestock producers, and ultimately, consumers, in the form of higher prices or lack of product.


Thirsty reservoirs

In west central Nevada, Churchill and Pershing Counties rely on reservoirs such as Lahontan and Rye Patch, respectively, to store water and provide irrigation for agriculture, partly because much of their groundwater is too high in salts for many crops. The reservoirs are mostly filled from winter snowpack that flows down through various watersheds, that is, if the moisture ever reaches the reservoirs in the first place.


“It’s how it comes off and what the soil moisture is,” said Ryan Collins, director of the Pershing County Water Conservation District, who has the unenviable job of managing the Rye Patch Reservoir water supply. “We’re at the end of the line. During spring melt off, if the ground is saturated and we get precipitation, it keeps running down and reaches us. But, if the ground is dry, it gets soaked in like a sponge and never reaches us.”


Collins says he has to leave 3,000 acre feet of water in the reservoir. Usually, the agricultural producers get 3 acre feet, but this year, he’s struggling to deliver about 1 acre foot.


“They’re just trying to keep stuff alive,” he said. “I imagine they are farming the best parts of their fields, and leaving the rest fallow. It’s not a good water year for sure. I’m just hoping for a big winter and good running conditions to get water to us. That’s where we’re at right now. We were fortunate we had the storage we did or we wouldn’t have even gotten started this year.”


Steve Foster is Extension educator with University of Nevada, Reno Extension in Pershing County, and is also a Certified Crop Advisor with the American Society of Agronomy. This year, he has been conducting weekly field scouting assessments at two fields in the county’s upper valley and two fields in the lower valley. The scouting assessments are to help farmers be on the lookout for any pests, including weed or disease problems. Dry conditions challenge the plants, the plants are weakened, and pests move in. So, Foster goes out to the fields and shares what he saw with producers in the area, along with recommendations on how to best manage whatever challenges he finds. He says managing these stresses is key to the crops’ long-term survival in prolonged periods of drought.

 Measuring stick in alfalfa plants.
Extension Educator in Pershing County Steve Foster visits alfalfa fields regularly, taking measurements of alfalfa growth and scouting for pests.

“Alfalfa is a deep-rooted plant, allowing it to find water longer than some other forages,” he said. “It also has the ability to go dormant and wait out more severe droughts, making it well-adapted to survive drought, but only when managed appropriately to keep other stresses to a minimum.”

Although best practices will help the crops survive long term, Foster says that with the lack of water, production and income will be down this year, as a result of having to leave some of their fields fallow, and getting less cuts, or harvests, due to the water having to be shut off early. Joe Frey of Western State Hemp, in nearby Churchill County, confirmed this. His family has been farming the valley for decades.


“We will get a solid three cuttings, and in some cases, just a little of a fourth,” he said. “Normally we get four full cuttings on everything without any issues. I think early water cutoff will lead to a 25% reduction in yield, and also a reduction in quality. The heat and smoke from the fires this year have also been detrimental.”


Frey said in Churchill County, where they rely heavily on the Lahontan Reservoir, they received a 70% water allocation this season. He estimates that with their traditional crops, alfalfa and corn, that most of the growers were leaving 10% to 20% of their ground fallow.


“I would say that if managed properly, overall farm income based on yield and crop quality will take a 30% reduction from normal,” he said.


Looking for alternative forages


Already in Nevada, some producers have begun to grow teff, which can be used as forage, and harvested as a gluten-free grain. The University did teff trials and worked with growers for the past several years, as part of the ongoing research on alternative crops being done by the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources and its Extension and Experiment Station units. The research showed that some varieties do well in Nevada, providing a good low-water-use alternative crop, or a suitable rotation crop, for some areas.


“Most teff is being produced for the grain right now, in Nevada,” said Maninder Walia, assistant professor and field crop specialist with Extension. “But, not all the farmers have combines for harvesting the seed, so they are interested in teff for forage. So, we are conducting more research on growing it here for forage, as well as for grain.”

Strands of teff being held in hand.
Teff has usually been grown for its gluten-free grain in Nevada, but University researchers are studying growing it more for forage as well.

Walia has begun some trials, planting teff at the University’s Experiment Station Valley Road Field Lab in Reno, and also working on some teff trials in collaboration with David Park at the Park Ranch in Minden, Nevada, which is about 50 miles south of Reno in the Carson Valley. Park has been growing some teff and selling it as hay. Walia has sent some of the teff forage off for nutritional analysis.


“We’ll see how the forage quality varies depending on the variety,” she said. “We’ll see how the nutrients do compared to alfalfa.”


Walia said she their first cut of the teff was delayed a couple of weeks, and they only anticipate getting two cuts this year.


“The drought and environment slowed it down. A variety of factors influence its profitability compared to alfalfa, including how many cuts you get, and the tonnage you get on each cut.”


In the Carson Valley, where many of the growers rely on surface water from the Carson River, growers are looking for a profitable forage crop that uses less water, in the face of droughts like this year’s and more to come.


“I think alfalfa and pasture production in the Carson Valley will be off 40 to 60% of normal,” Park said. “We are facing back-to-back drought years, and surface water from the Carson River was all but done as of July 4th. We are fortunate to rely on some underground water to supplement, but others not so much.”


Doing the math

Not only are producers growing less alfalfa due to the drought, there has also been little forage on rangelands, or public lands. Normally, many livestock producers graze their livestock on the rangelands to provide them with much of their feed. But, with the drought, there hasn’t been much to graze, so they are having to mostly purchase forage to feed their livestock. Coupled with the demand for forage from the dairy industry for dairy cows, this is driving up the demand for it, resulting in the growers getting a higher price for what they produce. Still, Frey estimates a 20% reduction in income from alfalfa this year.

Foster, who has done statistical analyses on dollar return per acre versus yield for alfalfa grown in Nevada, also thinks that despite the higher prices alfalfa growers can get for their product this year, their profits will be down due to the decrease in production.


“Annual yield has the largest impact on their profitability because inputs, including harvesting costs, change relatively little as yield increases,” he said. “In other words, there is a greater return on investment with the more they produce.”


Foster says his research showed a general rule of thumb is that a producer in Nevada needs to harvest over ½ ton per acre per cutting to cover just the harvest expenses, but that the breakeven tons per acre harvested will vary, depending on the individual operation and other factors, such as fluctuating prices and operating costs from year to year. Some producers are reporting higher costs this year, due to factors arising out of economic challenges posed by the pandemic. This leaves producers with a tough decision to make when water is getting shut off before what will be the last cutting of the season. They have to try to evaluate whether it is worth the expense of harvesting the not-fully-grown crop, or not.

Livestock producers hard hit

According to Gary McCuin, Extension educator further east in Eureka County, livestock producers will be hurt even worse by the drought than the alfalfa producers. McCuin assists producers in the county’s Diamond Valley, and is the director of the University’s Great Basin Research & Extension Center located there that the College opened last September. The 644-acre ranch is operated as a partnership between the College’s Experiment Station and Extension units, and addresses issues such as sustainable grazing management of rangelands, livestock production, and crop production under water-limited environments.

“The drought is devastating for livestock producers,” McCuin said. “The demand for hay is through the roof. It’s all over – California, Oregon, Utah, Idaho. Because of the drought on the rangeland, and people needing to feed their livestock, it’s not just the dairies needing it now. Now everybody is looking for it in all states. There’s all that unirrigated land that isn’t growing anything. They’ve had to pull everything off the range. Nothing is growing, and then there’s the fires. It’s a perfect storm kind of deal.”


According to Tom Harris, an economics professor at the University focused on various agricultural economics issues in the West, livestock producers might have to make some tough decisions.


“Rather than having to keep buying expensive feed for all their cattle, some ranchers may choose to liquidate some of their cattle early, he said. “They might put some of their cattle through to the market sooner than they normally would. There are also some assistance programs available to both ranchers and farmers from the USDA Farm Service Agency. I know we try to help them access whatever help is available.” 

Sinking water tables and slow-pumping wells

In Diamond Valley, producers rely mostly on groundwater and wells to irrigate their fields, rather than irrigation from reservoirs. But, McCuin said they aren’t really fairing any better than those relying on the reservoirs.


“Everybody’s struggling,” he said. “It’s groundwater, lack of snow. We had some spring rains, but the lack of snow and too much pinyon-juniper have robbed our groundwater. We’ve been pumping this Basin dry since 1960.”

McCuin says when the water table gets too low, the pumps greatly reduce their output, and then eventually may stop pumping at all. He said at the Great Basin Research & Extension Center, there are three wells that provide water for three 130-acre lots where he is currently growing alfalfa, winter wheat and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) to feed the Center’s herd of Rafter 7 sheep, world-renowned for their fine wool and developed at the University 30 years ago.

The Great Basin Research & Extension Center grazes its herd of sheep in Cottonwood Canyon in central Nevada.

“The wells can each pump 1,000 gallons per minute when there’s water, but they’ve been pumping under 500 gallons per minute all summer,” he said. “That is, when everything is working. We had some equipment issues this summer. If you have any problems and can’t water, you have the potential to lose the crop in the field if you can’t get it fixed in four or five days. And, it will set the production back, the tonnage, for sure. There’s little margin for error in conditions like this.”


McCuin said when all is said and done, they’re getting two cuttings at the Center this year, and then just turning the sheep out to pasture what would be a diminished third cutting. He estimates their tonnage will be down 20 to 30%. If that’s indicative of the rest of the growers in the area, McCuin said that’s a real problem for the local economy.


“What’s keeping the valley economically viable at this time is the growing of alfalfa and hay,” he said. “We can grow other things, but for lower dollar amounts. With our short growing season and long distance to markets, there’s just not a lot of other viable crops.”


McCuin says one key to long-term, sustainable production in the valley, and elsewhere in the West, is using the latest technologies to use what water there is as efficiently as possible.


Making every drop count

Center pivot with lesa in the alfalfa field.
A pivot with a LESA (Low Elevation Sprinkler Application) in Diamond Valley, Nevada, sprays closer to the ground for greater water-use efficiency. Photo by Gary McCuin.
Gary McCuin working in the field.
Great Basin Research & Extension Center Director Gary McCuin sets up a soil moisture sensor station in a Diamond Valley, Nevada, field. Photo by Jim Evans.

McCuin has encouraged the growers in his valley to put in newer irrigation technologies that spray closer to the ground.

“You don’t get the wind, the evaporation,” he said. You get a more uniform and efficient application. You also reduce your pumping cost because you reduce the pressure needed to pump the water.”

“You can save about 20% of water going from a MESA to a LESA system,” he said.

Another tool McCuin has encouraged growers to use is soil moisture sensors, probes that measure or estimate the amount of water in the soil.

But, at times like this, when the soils are all dry and wells are struggling to put out any water at all, McCuin says the sensors aren’t of much value, noting that, “Everyone is putting as much as they can on, and not keeping up or barely keeping up as it is.

Taking technology to the next level

Back up on campus at the University’s Experiment Station Valley Road Field Lab in Reno, researchers are taking the use of new technologies for agriculture production a step further. Various new technologies are being employed to develop a “smart” deficit irrigation scheduling system capable of identifying irrigation management decisions (when and how much to irrigate) that can help producers achieve the maximum yield that can be obtained with the conditions and water available that season. The work is being led by Assistant Professor Alejandro Andrade-Rodriguez in the College’s Department of Agriculture, Veterinary & Rangeland Sciences.

 Alfalfa growing in rows.
Plots of two alfalfa varieties grow under three different watering regimes as part of research being conducted at the University’s Experiment Station on Valley Road in Reno. Photo by Alejandro Andrade-Rodriguez.

Andrade-Rodriguez says that although alfalfa uses a relatively large amount of water, because of its deep roots, growth duration and extent of ground cover, it is also a good candidate for the application of deficit irrigation strategies, that is, using less water than what would be considered full irrigation while trying to maintain yield and quality. His research is focused on finding new ways to increase the amount of yield obtained per unit of water used for crops relevant to Nevada, focusing on alfalfa first.


Irrigation amounts required to implement these treatments are calculated using hourly data collected by “internet of things” (IoT)-enabled soil moisture-sensing stations and then applied with precision by a drip irrigation system. The degree of stress caused by the irrigation treatments is being monitored with infrared thermometers measuring plant canopy temperature, which is an indicator of plant stress. In addition, every two weeks, plant height and plant canopy cover (how much of the ground is being covered by the plants) are also measured, and aboveground biomass samples are collected.


“Computer science is transforming our everyday lives,” he said, “including the way we produce food and forage.”

 Researchers working with infrared thermometers.
Doctoral student Uriel Cholula-Rivera and undergraduate student Jackson Zolmer connect an infrared thermometer measuring plant canopy temperature to a data logger as Assistant Professor Alejandro Andrade-Rodriguez observes at the University’s Experiment Station on Valley Road in Reno. Photo by Claudene Wharton.

Andrade-Rodriguez is interested to also see the differences they find between the high-production and the drought-tolerant cultivars. He said the trial plots at the Valley Road Field Lab in Reno will continue through next year. He plans to plant a similar trial in Fallon, Nevada, next year, and wants to do a trial in Diamond Valley as well.

“The goal is to have crop models that can help us to provide irrigation management recommendations for our growers in Nevada facing reductions in their water budgets,” he said. “The code in our computer programs will be readily available to other researchers, and then maybe others can duplicate what we are doing here and create crop models and computer programs for other arid and semi-arid locations facing similar problems.”


Managing drought-stressed fields to help them survive and come back next season

While Andrade-Rodriguez looks for long-term solutions, Foster said, in the meanwhile, growers need to make sure they manage their fields at the end of this season to help the plants survive and come back next year. Although alfalfa is deep-rooted, making it well-adapted to survive long-term drought, Foster said it’s essential that the plants’ crown and roots remain viable in order for them to be able to recover.


“If enough plants survive for the stand to remain productive, the field should become fully productive again when it recovers from the drought,” Foster said.


He said that’s about five plants per square foot or 40 stems per square foot. In order to increase the chances of achieving that, he said that producers need to refrain from harvesting their last crops of the season too late.


“Especially when plants are stressed, it’s important to make sure they’re allowed to replenish the energy and protein stores in the roots, because these support new growth from buds in the crown once conditions improve,” he said. “Failure to allow alfalfa to recharge root reserves greatly increases the odds that plants may not survive. Generally, root reserves need between four to six weeks before the first killing frost of the fall to fully recharge before winter dormancy.


Foster says it’s also important for producers to make sure to leave enough leaf area, a top growth of at least 6 inches, for photosynthesis to occur, which provides energy to sustain plant functions without depleting energy stored in the roots. But, even so, Foster concedes that drought in late summer and early fall will still reduce the energy stored in the roots for winter survival and spring growth.

“Whether this will be significant will depend on the winter,” he said. “Good snow cover will minimize the weak stand effects, and a warm, open winter will exacerbate the weakness of the stands."

“We need to hope that soil moisture increases by next March, so that good root growth and high yields can occur next season.”

Sounds like a familiar tune as summer comes to a close in Nevada.

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