Energy-dense forage crops for the future

Energy-dense forage could present a viable alternative to feedlots in some instances

It’s time for producers to take an annual look at a perennial issue.

“What we need to do is get away from our conventional thinking,” said Clayton Robins during a special seminar presented by the University of Manitoba’s department of animal science.

The beef producer and former Agriculture Canada research assistant believes annual forage mixes can play a key role in both beef and dairy production, as well as with sheep.

But producers first need to accept that forage need not be perennial.

“Let’s grow them for a year, assume they are going to die, and figure out how to make them work because we can plug them into our system in a very key way,” said Robins, who visited 11 countries and met with nearly 200 experts, while researching energy-dense forages as a 2013 Nuffield Scholar.

Clayton Robins believes energy-dense forages can play a bigger role in livestock production.

Clayton Robins believes energy-dense forages can play a bigger role in livestock production.
photo: Shannon VanRaes

Many of the highest-energy forages, such as Italian ryegrass, chicory, Festuloliums or narrow-leaf plantain are not perennial — at least not in Manitoba’s harsh climate, he noted.

However, integrating them strategically into a field grazing system can boost animal performance while also improving soil health.

Chicory’s tap root has been proven to assist in breaking up compacted soil, and the diuretic effects of plantain can increase an animal’s water intake, resulting in fewer urine spots in your pasture as ammonia is diluted, said Robins.

The increased energy supplied to the rumen may also decrease greenhouse gas emissions in cattle, he added.

What led Robins down this path of exploration was an epiphany that sugars play a huge role in how effectively and efficiently livestock process any given forage. The higher the sugar content, the better the livestock’s performance.

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“But in North America we don’t really look at sugars,” he said, adding the focus in Canada tends to centre on fibre and digestibility.

Robins was in Argentina several years ago when he was shown information linking plant sugars to average daily gain. Since then he knew that forages needed a different approach.

And while the Prairies may not have the mild winters that would allow some perennials to function as such, it does have a great intensity of sunlight, said Robins.

“Ryegrass only needs about 10 hours to max out sugar content. We have that,” he said. “So I think we have to reconsider these really high-quality forages that we’ve passed over before.”

And it’s not just the livestock that benefit from the introduction of annual forages.

Perennial forages like alfalfa need a break from grazing to recover so that they can survive the winter, said Robins.

“So it will get two grazing passes, then it will all get rested and we will maybe or maybe not go back and get it after it’s long dormant,” Robins said. “So we will get grazing out of that, we just won’t get it during the critical period when perennials need to be getting rested. And in theory, this will help maintain our legume component, which is incredibly important in terms of energetic efficiency and longevity, input costs, yield, animal performance, all those things.”

He added that a grazing system including high-density forages could be used as an alternative to feedlots.

“We still need feedlots, we’ve got wintertime and feedlots are an important part of our system, but I do think we need to look at alternatives for them because at some point energy is going to become very expensive and some of the models we have right now are going to present a lot of challenges,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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