What are some agricultural options for my dryland farming operation?

A.P.ColoradoAnswer: I am pleased to provide you with information on agricultural enterprise opportunities for a small acreage in east-central Colorado.According to the soil survey (USDA, 2007b) your soils are mostly sandy and sandy loam. The ecology of the region is historically mid-grass prairies, with a climax plant community of such perennial grasses as prairie sandreed, little bluestem, needle and thread, sideoats grama, western wheatgrass, bottlebrush squirreltail, and sand bluestem. During an average year (regarding annual precipitation) the annual air-dry forage yield from dryland native grasses can be expected to fall between 1000 and 1400 pounds per acre. The region is suited for irrigated alfalfa production and non-irrigated small grains such as barley. Irrigated alfalfa yields from your soils will typically produce 3 to 4 tons of hay per year. Non-irrigated barley yields may fall between 15 to 25 bushels per acre.Livestock ProductionBased on the soils and native vegetational characteristics of your land (such as species and annual productivity), and proper grazing management (see below), the forage availability (on your land) for grazing livestock on a normal year is approximately 0.33 animal unit months (AUM) per acre. The assumptions for grazing management for these calculations are that (1) you will graze only 50% of the forage to leave enough leaf area for re-growth, and (2) 50% grazing efficiency (to take into account trampling, wildlife use, insect damage, etc).An animal unit is roughly one 1000 pound cow (or 6 goats or sheep), and an animal unit month is the amount of dry forage an animal unit will need for one month. By multiplying 0.33 AUM/acre by 40 acres, we get 13.2 AUM’s total for the farm for one year. This means that there is enough forage (given the above assumptions) for one animal unit for 13.2 months. This figure can be manipulated based on animal numbers and actual grazing season. For instance, 13.2 AUM’s also means that you can graze 13 animal units for one month, or 6 animal units for 2 months, and so on. For more information on deriving AUM’s see the References below. The AUM’s for this farm could be much higher if the plant community consists in more productive species. There are some very good introduced grass species that are adapted to dryland range conditions that would increase your forage production and subsequently increase your carrying capacity. For instance, intermediate wheatgrass or pubescent wheatgrass can, when successfully established, increase forage production by 1.5 to 2 times over native species, and they are more tolerant of grazing. For species information and planting recommendations I suggest getting the booklet Intermountain Planting Guide, developed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Utah State University, Logan, Utah. It can be ordered from USU Extension Publications at http://extension.usu.edu/cooperative/publicationsor by calling 435-797-2251.Technical information on appropriate plant species, as well as government cost-share conservation programs can be obtained from your local USDA Service Center. You can contact your local service center at:USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Brighton Service Center 57 W. Bromley LaneBrighton, CO 80601-3025 303-659-0525Sustainable Livestock ProductionSustainable livestock production on small dryland farms is difficult but not impossible. It requires careful attention to grazing management and stocking rate. For instance, meat goats are finding a niche market in many urban areas for the meat, and some farmers are even contract grazing with other landowners to control noxious weeds. For more detailed information on using livestock to control noxious weeds see Targeted Grazing: A Natural Approach to Vegetation Management and Landscape Enhancement, a handbook on grazing as a new ecological service. If you are considering livestock production as a possible farm enterprise, I recommend the following ATTRA publications:Cattle Production: Considerations for Pasture-Based Beef and Dairy ProducersGoats: Sustainable Production OverviewSustainable Sheep ProductionPasture, Rangeland, and Grazing ManagementCrop Production The irrigated crop capability class for these soils suggest moderate to severe limitations to productivity. What this means is that to successfully produce irrigated crops, conservation measures such as no-till and water management should be developed and implemented. The non-irrigated crop capability class suggests severe limitations and utmost attention to soil and water management must be implemented to produce crops and avoid environmental degradation such as erosion.Commodity crop production such as alfalfa and small grains may not be economically feasible on a small acreage. However, many farmers on small acreages are finding opportunity in intensive vegetable production. With intensive production, a farmer can have more control on a smaller parcel of land, and can effectively build soils and manage water use through such practices as cover cropping, rotations, and appropriate species selection. In addition, the market for locally-produced food is growing nation-wide. Farmers are finding opportunities to market produce to restaurants, through farmers markets, and directly through such projects as Community Supported Agriculture.If you are considering intensive vegetable production as a possible farm enterprise, I recommend the following ATTRA publications:Market Gardening: A Start-up GuideOrganic Greenhouse Vegetable ProductionSeason Extension Techniques for Market GardenersOrganic Certification ProcessCommunity Supported AgricultureFarmers MarketsSelling to Restaurants Another possible crop for your area is organic alfalfa hay. Do some research on farms in your area and determine if there is demand for organic hay. Organic dairies are usually the best customers for organic hay producers. If you would like more information on organic hay production, contact ATTRA at 1-800-346-9140 or www.attra.ncat.org.ReferencesLacey, J., E. Williams, J. Rolleri, and C. Marlow. 1995. A Guide for Planning, Analyzing, and Balancing Forage Supplies with Livestock Demand. Bozeman: Montana State University Extension.USDA. 2007a. Montana Grazing Animal Unit Month (AUM) Estimator. Montana: Natural Resources Conservation Service. USDA. 2007b. Web Soil Survey. Natural Resources Conservation Service.