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Five steps for building the right forage mix for your farm

The right mix of forage grasses and legumes will make the most of our 
short growing season and produce maximum yields

It’s Canada — not New Zealand or Australia — so ranchers here have to squeeze out as much grass as possible to keep up with their competitors in balmier climes, says a federal researcher.

And there are a few ways to develop a forage mix to make the most of the shorter season.

“The first, most important thing we need to do is look at the forage species and see what part of the growing season they have the best productivity,” Yousef Papadopoulos said during a recent Beef Cattle Research Council webinar.

“Some species do really well in early spring, but there’s not as many as early and midsummer.”

The key is to understand which species do well at different parts of the growing season, said the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist.

“You need different strategies to fill the gap to make sure you’re sustaining carrying capacity and productivity in your pastures,” he said. “When you select your species, you want to look at something that will grow and regrow. Regrowth is very critical, because that’s where you need feed to sustain your carrying capacity and the production during that part of the season.”

Also, match your forages to your livestock.

“If you’re trying to finish cattle or lamb on those pastures, you need high quality, even if the mixture isn’t as high on dry-matter yield. But for replacements or cow-calf heifers, you really want a lot of forage produced.”

Four-grass forage mixtures (left) consistently yield better and perform better than two-grass forage mixtures (right).
photo: Supplied

Next, consider durability.

“Perennial ryegrass grows very well for us, but we lose it in the first two years in many regions,” said Papadopoulos. “Even if its quality and yield are tremendous, we don’t really put it in our mixtures.”

Also, consider the “companionability” of the species in your mixture and use more species rather than less. In a 2004 study, he found production for four-grass mixes was significantly lower at first compared to two-grass ones. But after three or four years, the former had “the highest yield possible,” he said.

“The bottom line is that the more number of grasses you have, the more balanced and productive your pasture throughout the growing season.”

The grazing management system also plays a role. For rotational grazing, the best-performing mixtures contained white clover, but alfalfa performed best when the goal is mid-season stockpiling.

“Your objective for that particular pasture is that you want to sustain a legume in it and you want to still have the yield,” said Papadopoulos. “So choosing the right grass and legume combination and the right management for each species is very critical.”

But one mixture won’t work on all farms, so play around to find what works best for your soil and local conditions, he said.

“There’s an art and science to making forage mixtures, but (these basics) are like having a recipe for a good dish you want to cook.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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