Plant Management-Water-Conserving Plants
|At a field day, Texas Tech researcher Vivien Allen explains the innovative rotations she designed to help cotton farmers diversify, save water and improve profits. |
Photo by David L. Doerfert
Most pasture species are adapted to specific climates, thus warm-season grasses perform better in Texas. Cool-season varieties, such as fescue, grow better in higher altitudes and cooler temperatures.
In the Texas Tech project, Allen and others are testing Bermuda grasses, Dahl bluestem and Tifton 85, which are water-efficient and saline-tolerant. “It’s hot, it’s dry -- that’s what’s adapted out here,” Allen said.
While, in general, a cool-season grass has better forage quality, Allen has seen excellent cattle gains on warm-season varieties. She says it is important to match stocking rates to the rate of pasture plant growth. “You can make a forage good quality through the way you manage it,” she said. Her sequenced grazing starts cattle on dormant bluestem, moves them to a small grain and rye, then wheat, then back to bluestem.
“Pasture conserves more water than a [cotton] monoculture because the grasses do not require as much water as the cotton,” Allen said. “As long as we’ve got a perennial grass that’s 50 percent of the system, we will use less water.”
Fescue is a grass valued by farmers for its ability to stay green, and thus palatable and nutritious, during drought. The secret is in fescue’s long, complex root system. Before he received a SARE farmer grant to improve pasture for his flock of sheep, Richard Tripp of Lakeville, Mass., used to see his fields peter out each August, the hottest part of the season. Each year, he would buy hay to supplement pasture for his three dozen sheep.
In his SARE project, Tripp took a crash course in soil chemistry. He learned that his soil has little organic matter and retains just a fraction of precipitation, explaining why his pastures performed so poorly in dry conditions. He treated the soil with lime and pelletized chicken manure and seeded tall fescue mixes with deep roots that are good for both water absorption and intense grazing.
With the tall fescue, his flock stayed on pasture three extra months, saving him about $1,300 a season in what he would have spent on hay.
“Before the SARE project, my pasture management was sporadic and somewhat arbitrary,” said Tripp, who, with his wife creates handspun, hand-dyed wools for artisan products. “Since replanting and replenishing, the invasive weeds have all but vanished, and I am much more careful to have a regime of care for the land.
“Both pastures continue to do well. Perhaps because so much study, time, energy, and money went into them, I have learned to value them more and take better care of them.”
In the Southeast, where scorching hot summers can wither pastures, dairy producer Tom Trantham of Pelzer, S.C., manages his fields like a chessboard, seeding five to seven forages a year in grazing paddocks to maximize nutrition, plant growth and water availability. To provide his cows with a nutritious forage, Trantham plants different varieties of millet for his herd to graze through seasonal late-summer droughts into early fall.
“Tiff Leaf 3” has proved a very palatable, thin-stemmed variety that withstands drought, a fortunate choice for the drought of 2000. Trantham mixes clover or alfalfa for added nitrogen as needed.
Certain varieties of grain crops also perform well in dry conditions. Consider new crops that might work in your climate and provide a market advantage.
|SARE grantee Richard Tripp, with wife, Carol, planted heat-tolerant tall fescue in his Massachusetts sheep pasture, reducing the need for supplemental hay. Photo by Donna Leombruno|
Drought-resistant pearl millet is seeing a resurgence as a feed grain for cattle, swine, catfish and poultry. A warm-season annual grass, pearl millet’s high protein content has driven interest by poultry producers. Moreover, with its short maturing season, relative insensitivity to day length and good performance in dry conditions, pearl millet can fill a mid-summer niche. Originating in the arid Sahel region of Africa, pearl millet roots develop quickly, traveling laterally and down into the soil to suck up moisture and nutrients.
In Georgia, where most livestock producers import their grain from the Corn Belt, farmers growing pearl millet for feed are finding real market opportunities.
At the University of Georgia in Tifton, pearl millet researcher Wayne Hanna gets two or three requests a day for seed. Millet, an ancient food crop from West Africa, is also used for birdseed, food products and is even brewed into beer. Other drought-tolerant crop alternatives for the South include sesame and cowpeas.
Midwest farmers seeking to diversify from corn and soybeans into crops that perform well in dry conditions might consider sunflowers, sorghum, amaranth, pearl millet, foxtail millet, cowpeas and mung beans, according to Rob Myers, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute, which produces guides to promote alternative crops.
“In the arid West, safflower is known as a drought-tolerant alternative to wheat or alfalfa,” Myers said. “Native grasses grown for seed, as annuals or perennials, are drought-tolerant options in many regions of the country. For example, Indian rice grass, a drought-tolerant native, is being grown for gluten-free bread in Montana.”
Some horticultural crops, too, perform well in dry or droughty conditions. The wild beach plum, a shrub native to the sand dunes between Maine and Maryland, has helped some Northeast farmers diversify and gain a niche-driven edge. Beach plums, the size and color of purple grapes, make a tasty, unusual jam.
After SARE-funded researchers at Cornell University planted beach plum stock on research stations and New York and Massachusetts farms in 2002, their field day and resulting publicity encouraged 22 more farmers to begin growing beach plums. Adapted to harsh dune environments, beach plum plants performed well even during an extended summer drought in 2002. Growers, who wait three or four years for plants to bear fruit, can still expect a crop in dry years when other commodities might fail.
Similarly, producers of nursery plants who consider climate-appropriate perennials can raise healthy plants adapted to dry conditions, meeting a growing demand for low-water-use landscape plants. Utah State University researchers funded by SARE investigated an alternative growing method for perennial wildflower species native to the Intermountain West to meet demand for drought-tolerant plants that can be used in low water or xeric landscapes.
The Utah team led by Roger Kjelgren grew native wildflowers in a pot-in-pot production system, which places seedlings in containers inserted into holders permanently dug into the field. The pot-in-pot system results in nursery plants that grow more quickly because their root zones stay cooler in the summer. A cooler root zone also means the perennials use less water.
The study, which compared the pot-in-pot system to conventional container production, showed that the new system increased growth of native perennial wildflowers and lost less water. The difference was especially dramatic on hot, dry days. At least one nursery, which participated in the study in Clifton, Colo., plans to continue using the system.