The fight for the future of forages

There has been a dramatic drop in forage research, but it’s not just because producers could make more money growing canola

Forages and grasslands are not just about cattle and hay, they also provide a major environmental benefit for all Canadians.  
top and above photo: Canadian Forage and Grassland Association

What’s Canada largest crop? The usual answer is “wheat,” which in 2012 was seeded on about 20 million acres. But that year, cultivated forages made up 33 million acres, and more than 36 million acres were in native or unimproved pastures and rangeland.

Yet farmers who manage grasslands and forage fields say their industry is declining so rapidly its future is at risk.

“The long-term graph of forage research shows a dramatic drop — probably 70 per cent of our capacity has been let go in the last 20 years,” said Doug Wray, board chair of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association and a forage and cow-calf producer from Irricana, Alta.

“We’ve come down a long way and we really can’t afford to go any further. If we don’t stop the slide and start rebuilding, there are going to be some very big consequences to this province.”

Forage fields are increasingly being consigned to low-quality land, with more productive acres being seeded to canola and other crops.

High prices for grains and oilseeds in recent years is a big factor, but so has been the decline in forage research, said Ron Pidskalny, executive director of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association.

“Producers look at forages and say: ‘Not only would I make less growing forages, the production methods aren’t there, the variety selection isn’t there and the field testing hasn’t been done so I do not have access to the information I need to produce a good crop.’”

And it becomes a vicious circle, he said — as forage production drops, it’s even harder to get funding for forage research.

But it’s a problem that should concern all Albertans: ranchers, farmers, and urbanites alike.

Forages are the biggest crop by acreage in Canada — a full 55 per cent of this country’s agricultural land is grazed grassland or is seeded to forage. At least as important as the agricultural value (estimated at $1.5 billion in Alberta alone) are the environmental benefits.

“There is significant public good from forage land and native grassland,” said Wray.

“When you talk about clean air, clean water, biodiversity, ecosystems at work for wildlife in agriculture — that’s the grazing lands of this country. That’s the side benefit they provide.

"If we don't stop the slide and start rebuilding, there are gong to be some very big consequences to this province," Doug Wray.
"If we don't stop the slide and start rebuilding, there are gong to be some very big consequences to this province," Doug Wray. photo: Supplied

“I don’t think it’s good enough to turn a blind eye and walk away.”

When people think of clean water, they should also give thought to the watersheds it passed through before reaching them, he said.

“Fortunately for most Albertans, pretty much everything upstream is in forages and forest. Keeping it that way is pretty important to what kind of water ends up in the water system. If you let the land get degraded and more silt comes down the river; if you let the land run when it rains hard as opposed to being tied down by the perennial roots of hay land, there’s a consequence down that road.”

Residents of southern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan have learned all too well that the loss for forage and grasslands has an impact, he noted. Recent floods are being blamed in part on extensive drainage on a massive scale to convert acres best suited to forage to cropland. The loss of these acres and the dramatic reduction of potholes and riparian areas have greatly reduced the capacity to hold back water during spring and in wet years.

However, getting more dollars for forage research will be a challenge, given today’s reality of declining public funds for agricultural research.

Private companies now do much of the R&D for some annual crops — but this is only possible because seed sales allow these companies to turn a profit once their research and development successfully produces a commercially attractive crop variety. However, given that forages are perennials, more biologically complex, and the scientific knowledge base is smaller, it’s a whole lot harder for a private company to see potential profit in forage research.

Beef producer groups and forage associations are attempting to fill the void and invest in the future of forages. Current industry-led projects include working towards developing testing sites for new varieties, and building a bank of environmental research. However, Wray and Pidskalny said they hope forage stakeholders will step forward with additional funds for new variety development.

Alternatively, they suggest Canada take a page from Europe’s playbook.

“We were in England a few years ago. The farmer we met there had to measure up on a whole list of environmental benchmarks — he had to leave a headland of unmowed grass, not hay before a certain date, leave the hedges untrimmed — and if he did that, he got a payment from the public purse,” said Wray.

“A value has been placed on eco-services in other places in the world. That would certainly help shift the dynamic here when a producer is trying to decide between growing wheat and canola or pasture brome and alfalfa.”

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