GREEN PASTURES AND HAYLANDS ARE A FAMILIAR SITE IN WESTERN LANDSCAPES, PROVIDING AN OASIS OF GREEN IN AN OTHERWISE ARID LANDSCAPE.
While agriculture forms the basis of most rural economies, it also contributes to the aesthetic and cultural environment of the western landscape. On Blue Valley Ranch, much of the land currently in agricultural production has been raising hay and forage for several generations. It still serves two purposes, to provide a fall and winter feed base for livestock and to provide a supplemental source of forage for wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn, sage grouse, and even small birds, mammals and insects.
Water is one of the most important resources in the arid West, to the extent that it is often referred to as “Liquid Gold”. Ag production provides the basis for securing and preserving senior water rights, and decreed water rights on Blue Valley Ranch are used to irrigate over 1,800 acres of hay and irrigated pasture, including 140 acres of alfalfa. The majority of these acres are irrigated with open ditch irrigation, although wheel-line sprinklers are used on the alfalfa to increase water use efficiency.
The ranch produces 1,200 – 1,600 tons of grass and alfalfa hay every year, depending on moisture availability and temperatures (particularly in the spring). Typically, haying begins with a first cutting of alfalfa in early July, and often continues into September, depending (as always) on the weather. The majority of Blue Valley’s hay production is used as winter feed for livestock, including cattle, bison and horses, although local buyers purchase some surplus production.
IRRIGATED HAY AND PASTURE ARE SOME OF THE MOST PRODUCTIVE ACRES ON BLUE VALLEY RANCH, AND SUPPORT BOTH LIVESTOCK AND WILDLIFE.
A carrying capacity model for the ranch based in GIS software found that hay and pasturelands accounted for nearly 10% of the total land area. However, these same lands accounted for nearly 1/3 of the total above-ground biomass production. That kind of productivity is rivaled only by wetlands and riparian areas, except that wetlands comprise only 3-4% of the land area.
Many species of wildlife benefit greatly from residual forages on agricultural lands. Upland game birds, such as sage grouse, are frequently found along the edges of hay fields where harvesting leaves vegetation. The ranch often leaves slightly wider strips along the field edges for this very reason. Fall typically finds mule deer grazing in harvested hay fields, where some green forage is still available. Hay fields along the Blue River harbor geese, ducks, ibis, and even sandhill cranes and other waterfowl in the spring.
Ag production is also important to soil, water and air quality. All of Blue Valley Ranch’s crops are perennial, which store large amounts of soil organic carbon (SOC), as much as 10 – 40 g per m2. Perennial crops hold soil and prevent soil erosion, are much more resistant to invasion by noxious weeds, and require far fewer inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.