By Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension Forage Specialist
Drought, declining water tables, and legal issues are limiting the amount of irrigation water available. If you don't have enough for a good grain crop, consider planting forages this spring.
Many irrigated acres may not receive enough water this summer to grow a good grain or root crop. Sometimes you can combine water allocated for several fields onto one field to get a crop, but that still leaves the other acres with little or no water.
Forage crops also need water for highest production, but at least some useful yield can be gathered when total water available is very low.
If you expect water limits will continue for several years, a perennial forage would eliminate the cost and time of establishing a new crop each year. Switchgrass is a good choice because it’s less expensive to plant, its primary water needs occur in early summer when water usually is available, and it can be managed for hay or pasture.
Other warm-season grass options include big or sand bluestem and indiangrass, especially for grazing. With limited irrigation some wheatgrasses, bromegrasses, and alfalfa can work, but these cool-season plants respond best to water applied during spring. For some irrigators, water isn't available until after this most efficient time has passed.
For spring forage, if moisture is available, consider small grains like oats and spring-type varieties of rye, barley, and triticale. Of course, annual forages like pearl and foxtail millet, cane, teff, and sorghum-sudangrass are relatively water efficient and will yield proportionately to the amount of water they receive.
If water’s limited in your area this year, forages may be a good way to make the best of a bad situation.