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Agronomic responses of grass and alfalfa hayfields to no and partial season irrigation as part of a Western Slope water bank




Jones, Lyndsay P., author
Brummer, Joe, advisor
Cabot, Perry, committee member
Davis, Jessica, committee member

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Prolonged drought and increasing demand for water resources has caused growing concern over Colorado's ability to fulfill legal water obligations as identified in the Colorado River Compact. A Western Slope Water Bank, which would entail agricultural water users entering into short-term leases and temporarily withholding or reducing irrigation, could be a partial solution to free up water to fulfill these obligations. Grass and alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) hayfields may be ideal for inclusion in a water bank as they are the primary users of agricultural water in this region and may have a greater ability to withstand water stress in comparison to other crops. This study was conducted to determine effects of withholding irrigation for a full season from high elevation grass hayfields and implementing partial season irrigation on lower elevation alfalfa hayfields on forage yield, nutritional quality, and associated recovery period to confirm if this approach is worth pursuing. In Year 1, five established grass hayfields on the Colorado Western Slope were split into side-by-side plots, one of which was irrigated according to the manager’s normal practices as the control while the other was subjected to total cessation of irrigation. Both plots were irrigated in Year 2. In Year 1, average dry matter yields in non-irrigated plots were reduced to 39% (2497 kg ha-1) of the control (6377 kg ha-1). Neutral detergent fiber (aNDF) concentration in non-irrigated plots was 5% lower while crude protein (CP) content was 30% greater than the control. In-vitro true digestibility (IVTD) was unaffected by irrigation treatment. Yields of non-irrigated plots did not fully recover when returned to irrigation in Year 2 producing 49% (3623 kg ha-1) of the control (7442 kg ha-1). When returned to irrigation, aNDF concentrations were still reduced by 8% and CP contents were similar to that of the control. In the single site sampled after returning to full irrigation for 2 years, yields had fully recovered. It is probable that participation by producers in a water bank would be largely influenced by compensation for reduced yields the season of withholding irrigation as well as the following year when irrigation is returned to grass hayfields. Three established alfalfa fields were subjected to irrigation treatments including irrigation according to the manager’s normal practices (control), irrigation stopped after the 1st cutting (SA1), and irrigation stopped after the 2nd cutting (SA2) for 2 consecutive years. Averaged over both years, SA2 plots maintained production similar to the control in the 1st and 2nd cutting while SA1 plots were reduced to 61% (2089 kg ha-1) of the control (3430 kg ha-1) by the 2nd cutting. By the 3rd cutting, SA2 and SA1 yields decreased to 53% (1804 kg ha-1) and 30% (1013 kg ha-1) of the control, respectively. On a total season basis, both plots receiving partial season irrigation were reduced with SA2 plots producing 72% (7880 kg ha-1) and SA1 plots producing 33% (3650 kg ha-1) of the control (11040 kg ha-1). aNDF concentrations were greatest in the control at 34.6% and lowest in SA1 plots at 28.2%. By the 2nd cutting, SA1 plots had the highest IVTD (80%), and by the 3rd cutting, SA2 and SA1 plots were equally greater (80%) than the control (75%). Effects on CP content were inconsistent. These results suggest that reduced irrigation may improve forage quality slightly, but will significantly reduce yields. When irrigation is returned the following year, forages may have increased quality due to reduced fiber content, but grass yields will likely not fully recover while alfalfa yields may recover depending on length and severity of reduced irrigation. Due to its ability to recover, using partial season irrigation similar to that of the SA2 treatment on alfalfa hayfields may be the most practical approach to make water available to a Western Slope water bank.


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