Pick the right forage for productivity and profitability

Productivity in many Alberta pastures is so low it ‘doesn’t pay a lot of bills,’ says forage specialist

There’s an elephant in your pasture.

“The elephant is disappointment,” said Grant Lastiwka, forage specialist with Union Forage. “When you start to look at the average, Alberta hay yields are around 1.3 tonnes per acre across the province. That’s a low number.

“When we look at pasture, all we’re getting in grazing days across many pastures is the equivalent of two-thirds of a round bale. That, to me, doesn’t pay a lot of bills.”

But with the right varieties and the right management, cattle feeders can turn their forages from a disappointment into a high-value crop.

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“I want to do my best to put together resilient stands that will meet my goals to be profitable and productive,” Lastiwka said at Farming Smarter’s virtual ‘plot hop’ at the end of June.

“That includes picking the right cultivars and the right management to maximize the potential across the stand so that perennial forage does become a crop of value.”

One of the biggest challenges with forage in Alberta is that, in many cases, pastures are predominantly grasses, with little biodiversity.

“Those pastures aren’t that productive,” said Lastiwka. “That’s where I look at pastures and see a dilemma — but also an opportunity: Why don’t we consider a legume?”

In Alberta, pastures that include a legume have been found to be a quarter more productive and 31 per cent more profitable than typical tame grass pastures.

“What we’re looking at is a real opportunity for more grazing, more pasture, and more profit,” said Lastiwka. “We know that legumes bring enough to the table that they have to be considered. Those people who do consider them reap the benefits.”

Concerns about bloat are often cited as the reason for not including legumes, particularly alfalfa, in pastures. But with more varieties of less bloat-prone legumes — such as cicer milkvetch, sainfoin, and trefoil — hitting the market, feeders have more available options.

“Why don’t people take advantage of that legume?” asked Lastiwka. “There are always good reasons (not to) but to me, they’re not good enough.”

Which legume you pick to add to the mix will depend on your operation.

“It’s very hard to do fine carpentry with a post hammer,” he said. “That’s why I like looking at the species — I want to try my best to pick what fits my needs, and then manage accordingly.”

Forage picker

In most cases, you’ll want to look at a forage mix that includes “different species with different attributes,” including both cold- and warm-season grasses and broad-leaf plants such as legumes.

“It’s important to look at the species’ adaptation,” he said. “When you’re looking at a lot of species, try to get a feel for the cold tolerance, lifespan, disease resistance — all of those things come together.”

Lastiwka likes to start with rapid regrowth grass.

“In a pasture mix, I want something that’s going to make me look good, and that’s a rapid regrowth grass. It can make it a lot easier,” he said. “If we want to do fine carpentry, let’s set ourselves up with the right nail gun. Let’s set ourselves up with something that’s got the potential to work with our management.”

Then you’ll want to consider a legume — and you’ll need more of it than you think.

“For most of us, we want to start high because it’s more of a challenge to keep it in a stand. I want more legumes than people often have.”

Adding some creeping grass to the mix can help in higher clay soils or wet conditions.

“A little bit of a creeping grass is very forgiving to soil pugging and damage that can occur.”

But the mix you create will ultimately depend on your land and your management. Last month, a new interactive forage selection tool was launched for Western Canada. Forage U-Pick offers a list of forages best suited to your zone and end use, making it easier to choose the right plant for your mix.

That’s a good place to start — but it’s not the only thing you should do to pick the forage that’s right for you, said Lastiwka, who worked on the tool.

“Whenever we’re talking about forages, the answer is going to be, ‘It just depends,’” he said. “You can use that as a tool, but then get out to the plots and have a look at what’s happening in your local area to understand what potential it has for you.

“Tools are tools. Use them for guidance, but don’t lose sight of what’s happening locally.”

That local forage research is being conducted across Alberta right now, in part through Farming Smarter, he added. Once completed, this local data will be another tool in the tool box to “make some of those good decisions.”

“I really think this trial is an opportunity for us to do more things right and to learn from our mistakes quicker,” said Lastiwka.

“We’re starting to look at some of these species we didn’t look at before, like sainfoin and cicer milkvetch. We’re starting to look at mixtures differently than we did before. We’re realizing there’s something going on here. We’re realizing we can get highly productive native stands that will surprise us.

“So I think the time is now to see the value of forage as a crop.”

Forage U-Pick is available at upick.beefresearch.ca.

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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