UW project seeks to glean factors limiting high-elevation irrigated meadow production

Photograph of hands holding clump of grass and soil
Non-native grasses take over hay meadows, forming a dense organic layer that ties up nutrients in forms not available for plant uptake.

University of Wyoming researchers will study soil health and factors that limit yield in high-elevation irrigated hay meadows on 12 ranch sites in Wyoming and Colorado as part of a $500,000 USDA grant.

“This is a very cool project that we’re excited about,” said UW Extension soils specialist Jay Norton, who is heading the project. The project began in January and will run through 2024.

He said the sites are in the Laramie River Basin in Wyoming and the North Park valley in northern Colorado.

Norton, in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, said irrigated meadows above 6,500 feet are critical but underperforming components of livestock operations in rangeland ecosystems.

“We think it’s important because flood-irrigated grass hay is one of the most widespread crops in Wyoming and producers agree that hay meadows are generally an underperforming resource that requires more and more nitrogen fertilizer to maintain productivity over time,” said Norton, in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Norton leads a group of researchers from UW including Mengqiang Zhu and Linda van Diepen in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management; Urszula Norton in the Department of Plant Sciences; and Brian Sabade, UW Extension educator; and from Colorado State University, forage specialist Joe Brummer. Former UW students Daniel Adamson, from a ranch outside Laramie, and Rael Otuya, from Kitale, Kenya, have returned to earn Ph.Ds. in soil science working on the project.

The scientists set four objectives.

They will evaluate soil processes and vegetation that affect nitrogen availability. That includes looking at soil health indicators, analyzing soil organic matter chemical composition, and soil microbial ecology and soil greenhouse gases. The information helps set the second objective, which is identifying key soil properties as a minimum dataset for meadow health.

The third goal will be at the Laramie Research and Extension Center.

“We will evaluate novel ways to disturb the dense root mat using hoof impact from controlled cattle concentration, and light shallow rototilling, then planting a mixture of clovers to increase diversity and forage value,” said Norton.

The fourth goal, which includes exchanging information among researchers, producers, extension educators and others, entails monthly meetings with cooperating ranchers and annual progress meetings open to the public, he said.

“Participants will be invited to participate in data collection activities, plus an end-of-project workshop to share findings and discuss new management approaches,” said Norton.

For more information, Norton can be reached at 307-766-5082or at jnorton4@uwyo.edu.


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