Cuts in federal government-funded forage research came easier than others because they generated fewer complaints, Ron Pidskalny told the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s (CFGA) annual meeting Nov 16.
Pidskalny, who was the CFGA’s executive director until resigning Nov. 19, said that’s what a former high-level Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada official told him.
Cutting a sheep breeder generated 100 faxes and emails the next day, the official said, according to Pidskalny.
But Canada needs more publicly funded forage research because the private sector has abandoned it or was never involved, Pidskalny said.
“What we’ve found is that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has some really interesting technology just sitting there on the shelf because it doesn’t have enough capacity to get it out there,” he said. “It has done the research but it needs to be commercialized.”
Although forage is Canada’s biggest crop in acres, it’s many crops, and some are small in area. Moreover, most forages are perennials. Both mean limited seed sales, discouraging private firms from investing in varietal development.
“So if the private sector isn’t there, where’s the public sector in this whole area?” Pidskalny said.
Ideally, forage would follow the canola model with germplasm developed by AAFC turned over to private companies to commercialize, Pidskalny said.
Pidskalny said AAFC officials have indicated the federal government will support forage research by contributing to industry-funded work. But the CFGA can barely operate, never mind fund research. A modest program would cost $2 million a year, Pidskalny said.
Forage growers also want performance tests on new forage varieties. Merit testing is no longer required after changes to variety registration.
Pidskalny estimates it would cost $2 million a year to run the tests in four regions of Canada.
It would also cost $100,000 to set up, and until steady funding is found, there’s no point spending that money, he said.
Private companies don’t want to fund independent tests “and the bigger the company, the more they want to rely on their own publicity and marketing tools,” Pidskalny said.
Many legume inoculants required for nitrogen fixation are no longer available in Canada, putting farmers at a competitive disadvantage, Pidskalny said. The inoculants’ owners have been found and he hopes the CFGA can persuade them to sell the rights for a dollar.
Forages also face increasing competition from grain corn and corn silage. New shorter-season corn hybrids are being developed for Western Canada.
If corn yields more, farmers will switch, CFGA chair and Irricana, Alta. rancher Doug Wray said. However, switching to an annual crop such as corn can have negative environmental effects. And some experts say food is becoming less nutritious as production becomes more intensive.
“So our current production models may be challenged going forward,” he said.