When cowboy tales are told about the history of the cattle industry in Alberta, they often revolve around the massive cattle drives from the south or the thriving feedlot industry. This romanticizing often glazes over the real reason behind the cattle industry in the West – forage. At the start, a small herd was driven from the Red River to Fort Edmonton to fatten and prosper on the grass in the valley. Later, part of the herd was moved to Morleyville on the Bow River where they increased in size as a result of the abundant forage. Cattle were later brought up from Montana to add to the growing cattle population. After the Second World War, the cattle industry grew exponentially, grazing on the hard prairie grass. Their sheer numbers contributed to the birth of the cattle-feeding industry in the 1960s. Soon packing plants followed and the rest, as they say, is history.
All through the historic events of the last 100 years, ranchers and farmers have been stewards of the land, ensuring good-quality feed for mother cows and growing progeny. It was on the base of forage that the cattle industry was built and still stands today. At some point toward the end of the last century forage research faded, even though the demands on the land increased, as did the size and scope of the cattle and the industry. The birth of nonprofit forage associations provided the platform for research and education into the changing dynamic of the West. Today, the beef cow in many areas has been bred for higher levels of performance and that has required a new look at the role of forage and the role of the forage association increases in importance.
There are several regional forage associations in the province that tackle issues relevant to their area. This platform allows for the exchange of ideas and the fostering of a high level of thought. In most areas, applied production research, often overseen by the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA), is carried out by the association. This research has a direct application to the producer. In the process of deciding the area to research and distributing the results, a bond and commitment is created to the process. It is one of the only areas in agricultural production where producers proactively research and share results in a quick and efficient manner. This includes the visual visiting of research sites and the development of best management practices.
Litany of services
There is no doubt that this communication is important to the livestock producer of today. Beyond the research portfolio is a litany of services that investigate and distribute information on water management, environmental responsibility, pest management, manure management, animal health and wellness, marketing, production management and applied technologies. Information transfer is likely the weakest link in any investigation or research project and something that industry has struggled with for many years. Forage associations and ARECA, through their newsletters, tours, websites, on-farm visits, conferences and linkages, have proven that technology transfer can and does occur. And although forage associations are lightly staffed, the managers play a vital role in ensuring a seamless process.
Forage associations are more than a collection of innovators and early adapters. As non-government extension providers, the forage associations in Alberta are also educators and conduits to government and regulatory bodies. They play an important part in contributing to future agricultural policy and the growth of the forage industry. To ensure this continuity, the Alberta Forage Industry Network was established with a goal to speak with one voice for the 30,000 forage producers and sister organizations in the province.
The term forage is not limited to pasture. Forages are highly evolved feeds that provide protein, fibre and energy for milk,
gain and reproductive health. The efficient use of forage is so important that it is a major economic contributor to the beef economy. Reducing the delivery of feed by 1.2 tonnes per year and extending the grazing season by 60 days is worth $50 cwt on a six-weight calf. That alone is an economic generator of $300 per head or $1.3 billion. Proof enough that forages are the foundation of the beef industry in Alberta and that forage associations play a vital role in producer growth and prosperity.
BrendaSchoeppisamarketanalystandtheownerandauthorofBeeflink,anationalbeefcattlemarketnewsletter.Aprofessionalspeakerandindustrymarketandresearchconsultant,sheranchesnearRimbey,Alberta. [email protected]