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  Water-Frugal Forage:
Extension and Reclamation
Combine Forces

When most folks think about the food cornucopia created by irrigating desert soils, they imagine the supermarket produce bins brimming with winter fruits and vegetables. But how about the dairy shelf or the butcher counter?

Fact is, much of the milk and meat consumed by folks comes to them courtesy of the Colorado River, or more specifically, from the forage crops irrigated with the River's water. About half the acreage and three-fourths of the irrigation water in the region produces animal food. (No, not pretzels during the Super Bowl.)


Animal food in this case means forage crops such as alfalfa, sudan grass and bermuda grass. What the cows eat, in other words.

Hay and pasture are often characterized as low-value crops. True, they don't command a high unit price (a fact that accounts for affordable fresh milk). But they do serve an important role in overall farm operations. Forage crops are important as soil conditioners in rotation from year to year with higher value crops. Their cultivation also creates habitat for wildlife. And keeping the fields busy with production provides stability to the agricultural economy.

But forage crop cultivation in the desert sure does consume a lot of water. The challenge: Learn to produce forages with an increasingly limited water supply. Here's how Reclamation and the University of California Cooperative Extension Service (Extension) are teaming up to meet this challenge:


In the Palo Verde Valley, Reclamation is assisting Extension in a study of "deliberate deficit irrigation" strategies with alfalfa. Deficit irrigation supplies less water to plants than they actually use, with diminishing soil moisture providing the difference (drydown). This study will show how the practice affects alfalfa grown in desert conditions. With many crops, such as cotton, deficit irrigation actually increases productivity.

In the Imperial Valley, Reclamation is assisting Extension and the California Department of Water Resources in a runoff reduction and irrigation water management demonstration on sudan grass and alfalfa. This study will develop a simple method farmers can use for determining when irrigation of forage crops should be cut-off before the end of the growth period.


Reclamation is discussing with Extension a demonstration of Berseem (Egyptian) Clover as an alternative forage crop. Berseem is a cool season annual that was grown successfully in the Yuma Valley many years ago. Indications are Berseem may produce yields and quality comparable to alfalfa, using less water.

With advances like that, a good many cows someday may be rolling in the clover, not in the hay.