Effects of Late-Season Water Lease on Forage Crops

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2013: $24,950.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Jodi Pauley
Montana State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: general hay and forage crops, grass (misc. perennial), hay


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Crop Production: irrigation, application rate management
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Energy: energy conservation/efficiency
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Soil Management: soil physics


    The Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch and MSU Extension investigated the effects of split-season (late summer) water leases on hay crops in the Deer Lodge valley of western Montana. The specific purpose was to analyze the agronomic and economic benefits and impacts of a split-season water lease on forage crops over several years under different ranch conditions and different soil conditions. Alfalfa appears to withstand drought conditions better than anticipated, with yield losses ranging from 0 to 0.8 tons per acre for second cutting. During years 1 and 2 of the study, split season leasing had little impact on the alfalfa health in the fields studied. There was an increase in cheatgrass on year 3 and 4 in some of the fields as well as pests such as ground squirrels and pocket gophers. One of the biggest areas that helped improve the application of irrigation water was monitoring soil moisture in helping to optimize irrigation application which in turn helped to increase production and reduce costs. The economic impacts of split-season leasing varied with an average electrical savings of $50 per acre and a yield loss equivalent to $75 per acre on average. In summary split-season leasing can be a beneficial tool for decreasing inputs (labor and pumping costs) while diversifying income from entities willing to pay for leased water.


    The project was initiated in 2013 and extended through 2016 with the purpose of quantifying how forgoing irrigation water during the months of July and August affects the health and yields of forage crops, particularly alfalfa over the span of 1-4 years. A tool known as split-season leasing, which compensates ranchers/farmers for forgoing mid-summer (July-early September) water use was utilized during the course of this study across 3 different ranches as a tool to better quantify the agricultural impacts to crop plant health, soil moisture and crop yields. Increases in weeds, changes in plant communities over time and the presence of pests were also measured to assess the impacts of split-season leasing. This tool also allowed participating ranches to evaluate whether or not it might be economically beneficial in the future. An evaluation of the economics related to power savings and replacement costs of lost hay yields was performed to better assess the financial impacts of participating in a split-season lease arrangement. Given that split-season lease prices paid (which are variable) exceeded replacement costs in all situations, it appears that this can be a useful tool in certain situations for decreasing energy and labor costs associated with second crop hay production and conserving water.

    Project objectives:

    1) Demonstrate split-season water leasing on 2 ranches in the Deer Lodge valley with 3 other cooperating producers for further study, and develop outreach programs that promote this tool, and bring together agricultural producers to evaluate the agronomic and economic viability of split-season water leasing.

    2) Evaluate the agronomic effect, over time, of withholding irrigation water from hay crops (alfalfa and grass hay) for two months at the end of irrigation season (late July to early September).

    3) Evaluate the economic effects of split-season leasing on hay production and production costs under various scenarios, considering lease prices as a variable.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.