High hopes for new forage beef centre, but ‘fickle governments’ a worry

Boosting pasture productivity and lowering winter feed costs put 
money in the pocketbook, but forage research still a hard sell

A deal to finally make the proposed Alberta Forage Beef Centre in Lacombe a reality can’t come soon enough for its backers, who have been pushing government for a funding commitment since 2011.

“We’re in the process of getting everyone together in the same room to negotiate the terms of an agreement,” Karen Schmid, beef production specialist with Alberta Beef Producers, said at the recent Alberta Forage Industry Network annual general meeting.

Partners in the forage and beef sectors agree there’s a need for “concerted work in forages” to fill the gap left by the closure of the Western Forage Beef Centre.

“Forage is a very long-term commitment, and it’s not that sexy,” said Schmid. “There’s been a decline in the research and extension capacity in the forage areas.”

Top research priorities include reducing winter feeding costs and the environmental footprint of the cow herd and to improve cow efficiency; as well as late-summer and fall pasture productivity.

“This is a long-term plan,” she said. “We don’t expect to do all of these goals in the next three years or even five years.”

The centre will also bring together resources from across the forage and beef industries to improve extension activities. “A really strong extension component” is vital to the success of the program, said Albert Kuipers, manager of the Grey Wooded Forage Association.

“Our network is a really important part of making the whole thing work,” he said.

More from the Alberta Farmer Express website: Slim pickings for forage seed this growing season

A word of caution

But some industry players are worried the new centre will suffer the same fate as the old one.

Surya Acharya, a forage research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, questioned what the group has done to ensure the centre’s long-term future — a concern echoed by Dale Engstrom, a former Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development employee who helped get the Western Forage Beef Centre off the ground.

“Don’t forget how fickle governments can be,” said Engstrom. “You’re right at the same point we were 20 years ago.”

At the time of the Western Forage Beef Centre’s closure, producers felt budget dollars should be spent on marketing beef, not on conducting production research, he said, and that opened the door for governments to close the centre.

“What’s going to prevent some idiot deputy minister in either government saying that marketing is the only thing that’s important in agri-food production?” he asked. “You need a strategy for that.”

However, Schmid said that the political climate has changed over the past 20 years. Governments can’t carry the same load they once did and are now looking for industry dollars to support research, she said.

“If (the governments) are looking for industry match for their programs, they need to be doing the things that industry wants to do.”

Anyone thinking about growing forages this year better act sooner than later.

Strong cattle values coupled with low grain and oilseed prices is shifting marginal acres back to forages, Kevin Shaw, sales and marketing representative at Pickseed, said at the recent Alberta Forage Industry Network annual general meeting.

And there’s not an excess of forage seed around given that yields were only average last year, he added.

“Forage seed supply is going to be a little on the tight side,” said Shaw. “My phone is really heating up.”

Alfalfa seed is mainly grown on contract, making it the most stable seed supply for the upcoming year. Grass seeds — bromes and fescues — are produced on an open-contract basis, so “those fields can get worked under pretty quickly” in favour of more profitable crops, he said.

“A couple years ago when canola was going to be everybody’s golden goose, a lot of those acres got ripped out and put into annual crops.”

Even with the tight supply, Shaw said producers should be able to find seed even if they have to wait until later in the season. But they may not get the quality or type of seed they want, he added.

“You better speak for your grass seeds sooner rather than later.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

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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