Intermountain West Alternative Forages Project – Phase I

Project Overview

Irrigation of forage crops, primarily alfalfa and grass hay and pasture, consumes most of the water used in Western Colorado and much of the rest of the Upper Colorado River Basin. Agricultural water conservation efforts to date have primarily focused on temporary fallowing and reduced irrigation of these forage crops. While this work is important to address short-term water shortages, it has limitations as a long-term adaptation to water scarcity. There is a growing interest in understanding the potential of alternative forage crops to use less water while supporting the vitality of agriculture over the long term. This project is targeting three crops:  Kernza® varieties of intermediate wheatgrass (IWG; (Thinopyrum intermedium), sainfoin (Onybrychis viciifolia), and silflower (Silphium integrifolium). Current research indicates these crops could require less water and be economically viable alternatives to alfalfa and grass hay. However, there is a lack of information regarding best methods for establishing these crops on fields previously used for pasture and hay, their water conservation potential to produce adequate forage in the Upper Colorado Basin geography, and under deficit irrigation or drought situations.

Phase 1

Under the larger funding model for this project ($413,866) Phase I of this project will primarily address the first question: what sequence of practices are needed to establish these crops on lands formerly used for hay production and grazing in the Upper Colorado Basin? In order to address this question we will:

  1. Conduct an in-depth review and assessment of existing work relevant to the Colorado River Basin for IWG varieties and sainfoin (NOTE: Funding has already been secured for this task, which will inform our 2023 field trials)
  2. Conduct field trials for all three crops at 6 on-farm sites at different elevation zones in the Upper Colorado River Basin, pairing them with more controlled sites at university research stations, and
  3. Support for the field trials through hiring an agronomist to advise cooperators, collect samples and data, and assess results.

In addition, we are laying the groundwork for a larger scale assessment of water use by these crops across the intermountain West by adding additional information, effectively “teaching” the USDA Cropscape system.  This system provides a raster, geo-referenced, crop-specific land cover map for the continental United States using satellite imagery. This will enable a coarse-level estimation of the extent to which these crops are being grown in the intermountain West and, through other remote sensing tools, estimate their consumptive water use and compare it to more traditional forage crops grown in the region.

Future phases of this work will involve scaling up field trials; more extensive data collection on water consumption and irrigation requirements, including yield potential under deficit irrigation; quantification of soil health improvement in accordance with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service soil quality parameters; and potential for these crops to generate additional revenue through harvesting of grain and oil seeds, in addition to forage. We will disseminate the results of this work through various forums, including peer-to-peer workshops and field visits, Basin Roundtable meetings, conferences and media stories.


  • Perry E. Cabot, Extension Professor, Colorado Water Center, CSU Extension, CSU AES
  • Paul Bruchez, Grand County Rancher, Colorado Water Conservation Board
  • Katie Russell, Research Scientist and Manager, CSU AES
  • Tessa Peters, Director of Crop Stewardship, The Land Institute
  • Hannah Holm, Associate Director for Policy, Southwest Region, American Rivers
  • Aaron Derwingson, Water Projects Director, The Nature Conservancy
  • Mely Whiting, Legal Counsel, Trout Unlimited
  • Margaret Krause, Asst. Prof., Department of Plants, Soils and Climate, Utah State University
  • Kirsten Kurath   , Colorado River Basin Roundtable
  • Steve Larson, Research Geneticist, Forage and Range Research Lab, Utah State University
  • Kevin Lombard, Assoc. Professor, New Mexico State University
  • Grace Miner, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Soil Management, USDA – ARS – Fort Collins
  • Hannah Rodgers, University of Wyoming



This project is supported with funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.  Additional support provided for this project includes a dedicated post-doctoral researcher based at the WCRC-GV (salaried at $55,000 + 35% fringe with The Land Institute) and a roving quasi-Extension agronomist supporting the project regionally.