The Canadian forage industry is impacted by dynamics at home and around the globe, as is all of agriculture. In a changing world, producers continually evaluate and build strategies that will support successful business plans. Identifying trends is one way to clarify the picture and provide direction. The following is a look at several trends at play in the forage industry.
Beef and milk consumption are increasing in many developing countries as their economies grow and their citizens have more disposable income. This is having an impact on our forage industry in a couple of ways. First, Canadian beef is being successfully marketed in many of those countries, helping create the record-high prices for cattle and beef here at home. Those record prices are widely expected to drive herd expansion. The cow herd diet is almost exclusively forage, and more acres and higher-yielding varieties will be needed to fill the gap.
The second impact of improving diets in developing countries stems from their desire to produce more meat and milk at home, despite the lack of all the resources necessary. For some, importing high-quality forages is a successful strategy to increase production. Japan, Korea and China are importing Canadian forages. Some Middle Eastern countries have decided to concentrate their available irrigation water on the highest-value crops and are now major importers of forages for their dairy and camel herds. Canada, with our fertile soils, rainfall, infrastructure and skilled producers, is well placed to export to these markets.
Forages are Canada’s largest crop by area, with 32 million acres of tame perennials and annuals. These are the pasture, hay, greenfeed and silage acres. Another 37 million acres of native pasture rounds out the forage supply for Canada’s ruminant herds. Approximately 80 per cent of the beef diet is forages. For dairy, the portion is 60 per cent.
Competition for land with cash crops and other uses will limit the increase in acres to feed a larger herd. Producers will look to improved varieties, better management, more use of legumes, and production systems that optimize their resources to create the most value. Most of the increased acres will come on mixed farming operations as they adjust rotations to grow more feed.
Some cash crop producers have successfully included high-quality hay acres in their rotations. These acres are intensely managed to produce specific products for the dairy and equine markets in North America as well as primarily dairy markets overseas. While these acres are relatively small in the big picture, they bring important diversity to monoculture rotations and farming enterprises.
While there is increasing recognition of the environmental goods and services provided by forages, progress has been slowed by the science to support it. The wide variability of growing conditions and huge complexity of interacting cause-and-effect factors make it extremely challenging and costly to quantify dynamics such as greenhouse gases, carbon sequestration, nutrient flows, water infiltration and runoff. Fortunately management practices that enhance forage productivity and longevity are also positive for the environment. When producers adopt better management practices, along with more production, they get environmental benefits they intuitively know are there, but rarely can quantify. Support may be coming from multinational retailers wanting a “sustainable production” stamp on the food they sell. This will play out through organizations like the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.
Forage research has been declining in Canada for the last 30 years. The tide is turning. Since forming five years ago, the CFGA has effectively promoted the need for, and value of, forage research. Great work by the provincial forage and livestock associations and strong leadership from the BCRC and its staff, particularly Andrea Brocklebank and Reynold Bergen, have greatly increased the investment in ways that will help retain capacity and encourage succession plans for retiring scientists. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have collaborative research programs to deliver more productive forages, and management systems which have an energized focus on realizing the full potential of the sector.
Doug Wray is chair of the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association
This article appears in the 2015 Forage & Grassland Guide