After many years of decline, forage research is on the upswing.
And that will produce a payoff for livestock producers, said forage researcher Nitya Khanal, who was hired in 2015 at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s research station in Beaverlodge.
“As of last year, we are revising this program and we are looking forward to recovering this program as well as the forage seed research of the past,” said Khanal. “For the last 10 years, the focus was on the immediate production of practical issues of producers. We want to go deeper into the science aspect.”
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada now has half a dozen forage researchers, and others have been hired at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Manitoba.
The Beaverlodge research farm’s main focus is on forage seed production and improving forage seed quality and yield. A major project — which included a cropping systems study, plant growth regulator effects, plant nutrient management, and weed control — is wrapping up.
“We’re actually selecting a new product for forage seed weed control and another aspect is evaluating proprietary varieties so our producers may potentially grow on contract,” said Khanal.
Another colleague is looking into insect pest management while Khanal and other researchers are looking at a number of forage species, including creeping red fescue.
“Canada is the largest producer and exporter of creeping red fescue in the world,” he said. “Within Canada, the Peace Region is the largest growth area for the project.”
Beaverlodge researchers are also continuing a cropping systems study started in 2014 that evaluate the effects of different practices on soil quality. They’re also looking into a plant nutrient management study, and are working with the beef cluster project, collaborating with other scientists.
“We are hoping to grow quite rapidly in the coming few years,” said Khanal.
Producers will be able to expect a new variety of creeping red fescue in about five years, after researchers have undertaken mass selection and developed an appropriate population. They are also trying to develop a higher sugar content in orchard grass, and expect to see another variety of that in about five years.
The federal government is investing in forage research because it recognizes its contribution to livestock production, he said. Forages also benefit cropping systems because they have a high proportion of roots compared to annual crops, which boost carbon sequestration in the soil as well as aeration and water-holding capacity. There’s also a growing recognition that integrating forage in a cropping system can increase profitability.
“There is a lot of nitrogen benefit if you have forage legumes in the rotation. You have a higher yield with less fertilizer input for the following crops,” said Khanal, pointing to one study that found yield boosts of 70 to 80 per cent with very little fertilizer application.
Forages are particularly beneficial in the Peace Region, because of the region’s soil quality, which is highly acidic.
“Even some of the annual crops may have difficulty producing good yield here,” said Khanal. “And you can have profitable production in forage seed crops in this region.”
But there are challenges.
Enhancing multi-harvest seed yield is a concern as production tends to drop off after a few years.
“To be competitive, yields should be higher,” said Khanal.
As well, red and alsike clovers are major seed crops in the Peace Region and cannot be produced for more than one year because of insect and disease problems.
Whitehead is a disease that affects many grass forages, which results in a loss of developed seeds. These are concerns for both seed crop and hay quality.
There’s also a need to improve stress tolerance, and researchers have had success improving stress tolerance in alfalfa and bromegrasses.
Competing with other crops is another challenge, because crops such as wheat and canola receive more funding and investment.
“Other crops have received so much attention and innovation,” said Khanal. “Canola and wheat have new varieties and so much research going on, and the forage sector is not keeping pace with innovation.
“That’s why some of the good production lands are not given to forage seed crops. They are given to other crops even though there is good profitability given for forage seed crops. They are losing ground.”