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Forage crops don’t get enough respect

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Forages should no longer be considered the poor sister to Alberta’s other crops, says Stephanie Kosinski, forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture in Leduc. They’re overlooked crops that are essential to a number of industries in Alberta.

To highlight the importance of this crop, the Alberta Forage Industry Network (AFIN) and Alberta Agriculture have prepared a report called “The Value of Forages in Alberta.” Kosinski outlined the findings of the report at a recent AFIN meeting.

“Forage is a major part of our agriculture. We need to start putting a value on it and have the public realize the value of it. It should be right up there with our canola and wheat, and our livestock industry,” said Kosinski.

“Forages tend to be undervalued or overlooked compared to some of the other agricultural commodities. A lot of forage statistics aren’t collected or as closely monitored as some of our grain crops are.”

Forage is defined in the report as vegetation consumed by animals directly or harvested mechanically and fed to livestock.

“The direct value of forages is around $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion,” said Kosinski. “That’s quite substantial and I think a lot of times people don’t realize how valuable our forage industry is.”

According to the 2006 census of agriculture, forages cover 28.5 million acres in the province, half of the agricultural land in the province.

Aside from their monetary value as crops, forages have a number of indirect values. The presence of forages can reduce erosion, act as a filter to trap surface sediments and maintain water quality. Forages and perennial ground cover also play a role in water storage and regulation, and play an indirect role in hunting, wildlife viewing and recreational fishing. Forages also provide a habitat for pollinators and benefit the province’s honey industry.

National forum

Doug Wray, who farms at Irricana, is president of the Canadian Forage Grasslands Association (CFGA) and represents the AFIN at the national level together with representatives from the Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario Forage Councils. The CFGA was established a few years ago, at about the same time as the Alberta Forage Industry Network.

“We’ve formed these forage associations at an opportune time,” said Wray. “The business just keeps coming in the door.”

The Canadian Cattleman’s Association and the Dairy Farmers of Canada have been strong supporters of CFGA and have contributed financially. The voice of forages is growing, and they are represented at several roundtables, including the beef value chain roundtable.

Wray sees value in having a forage presence at these tables, so the importance of forages can reach other producers and key players. Politicians often pay more attention to these roundtables, so it’s important for the forage industry to be a participant.

“With the declining cow herd and the feeders, retailers and packers are starting to wonder where their supplies are coming from, the room goes quiet when you start to talk about the forages that underpin the industry,” he said. “There’s certainly a growing recognition of forages. Without a functional forage industry, we can’t have a functional beef industry.”

Wray said he recently participated in a research roundtable with researchers, funders and members of the beef value chain. One of the key topics identified for research was forages. “I think this wouldn’t have happened even two years ago. We’re seeing a shift in emphasis,” he said.

Wray said people are starting to realize the importance of forages that can survive through winter months. “If we’re going to extend the grazing season and reduce our costs, we need forages that hold their value,” he said.

Getting legumes into forage stands and creating a more nutritious ration are also priorities. Many people in the industry are aware that more money and more research needs to be devoted to forage crops.

“We need an impact in our forage productivity if we’re going to compete on the land base with the other crops,” said Wray.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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