“There’s huge opportunities there. We’re great at sequestering carbon. In six inches of topsoil, how many tons of fibre are in an acre? About 150 tons. That is 10 times the amount of C02 in the atmosphere above that acre.”
The field of opportunities for Manitoba’s forage producers is growing.
Far from just providing feed for dairy and livestock as in the past, the industry stands to benefit from its willingness to try new things and expand its marketing focus to include food, fibre, fuel and ecosystem services, according to Ian Wishart, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.
“We’ve all had alfalfa sprouts at the salad bar,” said Wishart, in a presentation at a meeting hosted by the Manitoba Forage Council in Portage la Prairie last week.
“That’s been a relatively minor thing. But as time goes on, and nutraceuticals become more common, we’re going to find that feed, animals finished, and other things created from the forage industry will become more attractive,” he said.
More research, and being able to make sound health claims, is the key to successful marketing, he added, noting the stunning turnaround that oat production in the province has enjoyed by casting a net wider to catch some of the huge sums being spent by consumers in pursuit of better health.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
“What has this done for the oat industry? It has brought it back from the brink of extinction in this province to a major industry with the largest processor in North America, if not the world based here in Portage la Prairie. That was a major turnaround in relatively little time.”
Fibre from forages present other interesting opportunities. Crops grown specially for humans and animals already make use of the leftovers from forage seed production, but that could also be shifted to include the often-overlooked benefits of residues that provide benefits for the soil.
“It is a significant stabilizing factor. We all know that in 2003-04 we had a bigger drought in Western Canada than in the Dirty Thirties, and Western Canada didn’t blow away,” he said.
Fuel, in particular the elusive promise of cellulosic ethanol from biomass sources such as switch-grass, continues to be stuck in the research stage. But some notable progress has been seen.
“We’ve been hearing about that for as long as I can remember, and it’s always 10 years away,” said Wishart.
“But there’s a huge opportunity out there. We have lots of biomass, and the demand for energy will never cease. Especially in a form that can be transported easily, and that’s really what ethanol is all about.”
Use of fast-growing grasses and crop residues as a renewable heating fuel for farms and towns and for generating electricity has been “tried-and-true” technology in Europe for decades, he added, and will eventually be more widely adopted in North America.
Where forage production really shines, said Wishart, is in the paid provision of ecosystem services by farmers for the benefit of society. He noted that Canada is the only country in the G8 group of industrialized nations that has not adopted a payments system that rewards landowners for preserving and enhancing natural capital, such as water quality and species diversity.
Farmers control 87 per cent of the landscape in southern Manitoba, and forage production is third in terms of total acres. Increasing regulation by policy-makers is here to stay, he added, but collective efforts by farmers could make the process a two-way street.
“Buffer strips on riparian areas, nutrient management – a lot of this stuff is related to their view of what they think they want from our land. We have rights as private landowners. If you as society want these things, for the right price, you can have them.”
With a new administration in the United States pledging to step up the fight against global warming, a market for carbon credits and sequestration is likely to arrive in the very near future, he said.
“There’s huge opportunities there. We’re great at sequestering carbon. In six inches of topsoil, how many tons of fibre are in an acre? About 150 tons. That is 10 times the amount of C02 in the atmosphere above that acre,” said Wishart.
“What we do in managing landscapes can have a significant impact on air quality.”
Wishart added that if global warming throws a wrench into weather patterns, forages offer the most resilient form of food production in a violent, unstable climate.
Two years ago, grain crops on his farm near Portage la Prairie suffered 100 per cent hail damage – the worst that he and his 90-year-old father had ever experienced.
“Whether that’s related to climate change, who knows? But the only thing we had left to harvest that year was the hay crop,” he said.
In Manitoba, keeping excess phosphorus out of Lake Winnipeg gets a lot of attention. But in the rest of the world, fear of a global shortage of the critical fertilizer nutrient in the coming decades – “peak phosphorus” – keeps politicians and scientists awake at night.
“Do you remember when phosphate went to $1,800 last summer? Phosphorus is mined; it’s a limited resource,” he said. There is currently only one mine in Canada, and other known untapped reserves within our borders are few.
China, with 60 per cent of the world’s known phosphorus deposits, has begun to see the nutrient as a “strategic resource.” To protect its interests – and keep its billion-plus population fed – it slapped an export tariff on the nutrient amid talk last year that the world’s supplies were tilting towards the downward slope of depletion. The result? Prices soared.
“Forages provide a great ability to store, scavenge and put this nutrient back into the whole chain again,” he said, adding that whether or not “peak P” has arrived or not, the fertilizer industry will be keen to price its products accordingly.
The nitrogen-fixing ability of forage legumes is well known, and offers farmers an alternative to the input treadmill. On his own potato acres, Wishart said that he has used alfalfa in rotations for years, for the “free” nitrogen, plant health, and long-term benefits to soil quality.
Eric Thornhill, a local sheep producer originally from the U. K., noted that the use of clover-based rotations in his former country have been the key to a system of sustainable, mixed multi-species farming that has lasted for centuries – long before expensive chemical inputs were even invented.
Traditionally, four or more years of legume and grass forages were used to build up the nitrogen curve and “clean up” the soil, which was then followed by successive crops of potatoes, then wheat, followed by oats or barley, and then back to forages.
“The worst thing was the amount of work. We used to have seven harvests a year,” he said with a [email protected]