It looks grim out there folks. Reports coming out of California are calling the current drought conditions “epic”. The unprecedented dry weather is causing nightmares for Californian farmers and ranchers, many of whom can no longer graze their livestock on pasture forage. But it’s not just California feeling the heat. The USDA has now declared disaster areas in 11 states throughout the West and Midwest, including my own. With water in short supply, landowners planning to establish a pasture in the coming season might want to consider more drought tolerant pasture grass species as well as practicing dryland farming methods in case irrigation becomes unavailable.
Study Climate and Soil DataWhile growing pasture grass seed without the use of supplemental irrigation presents some unique challenges, it’s not impossible. In fact, dryland farming has been the norm in several parched areas of the country for over a century. Before planning to establish a dryland pasture, be sure to study the climate data for your area. Your average annual precipitation levels will be the biggest factor in establishment success, yields and longevity. Keep in mind that during drought years, such as now, your precipitation levels could drop much lower than the average. Most dryland forage species require at least 10-15 inches of annual precipitation, but there are some species that can handle the 5-10 inch range. You should also have your soils tested at this time to ensure they are able to support forage production.
Select Pasture Forages Based on Your Precipitation LevelsOnce you have a good idea of your goals, climate and soil conditions, you’re ready to select your pasture species. Remember to base your plant selection on your soil type and precipitation levels. For areas of the country receiving 15+ inches a year, the more traditional pasture grasses and legumes can be used. This includes tall fescue, orchardgrass, the bromegrasses, white clover and alfalfa. For areas that fall within the 8-12 inch precipitation range, our native wheatgrasses are an excellent choice. This range is also ideal for planting several of our native warm-season grasses such as the bluestems, sideoats grama and Indiangrass. Other good choices include intermediate wheatgrass and dryland alfalfa varieties. For the extreme 5-8 inch precipitation range, Siberian and crested wheatgrass are the most common selections as well as our native bluegrasses, wheatgrasses, and Indian ricegrass.
Planting DateSelecting the right planting date is also a crucial part of dryland farming. For cool-season pasture grasses, fall is generally the best time to plant. This takes advantage of the cool, wet autumn season as well as the following spring, allowing the most time to germinate and establish before the harsh summer. Late winter and early spring can also be good windows of opportunity. Warm-season pasture species should be planted during the spring.
Seedbed PreparationNext, prepare a firm seedbed for planting. For dryland farming, no-till seeding is ideal. With no-till, soil erosion is reduced significantly as vegetation is left on the soil surface instead of removed. Water infiltration increases along with the amount of organic matter in the soil. The higher levels of organic matter contribute to better fertility, soil health and moisture availability. If no-till seeding methods are not possible, prepare the soil with a series of disking or harrowing. Deep tillage will only accelerate soil moisture loss.
Seeding MethodsDrill-seeding is highly recommended for dryland pastures. Seed should be planted at a depth of 1/8 to 1/2 inch. Planting too deep is one of the biggest reasons for seeding failure. If the area is small or drill-seeding isn’t possible, broadcast seeding will work. Just make sure to incorporate the seed into the soil using a roller or cultipacker.