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Who will breed the next generation?

Forages aren’t only suffering from a shortage of research dollars, but a shortage of researchers to do the work if the money were available

See if you can answer these two skill-testing agricultural questions.

What is the largest crop in Canada?

Which crop has one of the poorest records for funding research and breeding programs?

If you answered “forages” to both, you’re right. You’ve also put your finger on a chronic problem in Canada’s forage industry.

Statistics show the total acreage of pastureland, tame forages and native hay far exceeds the seeded area for wheat and canola. You’d think that would put forages at the top of the list when it comes to research funding. Sadly, no.

Historically, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has been the major player in forage breeding. But there are only five publicly funded programs for breeding tame forages in Canada. Government funding for forage research has been largely static for the last 10 years. It’s estimated only about a third as much forage research is being done nationally today as in the 1980s.

The bottom-line reason for this state of affairs is a lack of money and, subsequently, a lack of qualified people.

“There is a critical shortage of forage researchers, in particular plant breeders, in Canada and several of the few remaining researchers are nearing retirement in the near future,” says a recent Beef Cattle Research Council report on developing improved native and tame forage varieties for Western Canada.

Thin talent pool

Given the thin talent pool, the question becomes not just what new forage varieties will be bred, but who will do the breeding.

“There is a lack of human resources for forage breeding in Canada,” says Doug Cattani, a perennial crop breeder who mans the lonely ramparts of forage breeding at the University of Manitoba. “It’s getting to the point where there’s almost no one left.”

Those who are left tend to focus on major species. Research projects often focus on alfalfa, clover and grasses because there are not enough breeders to cover all species.

Part of the reason for the shortage of forage researchers is a long- standing decline in public funding with industry players not taking up the slack. Reynold Bergen, the Beef Cattle Research Council’s science director, says the beef industry always recognized the importance of forages but had extremely limited research funds. So BCRC deferred research to the forage industry. However, the forage sector couldn’t fund research because it had no commodity checkoff and no way to implement one. As a result, Bergen says, no one in the industry was funding research, so it became a low priority in the public sector as well. Declining government budgets and provincial cutbacks to universities only aggravated the problem.

Although some private companies are involved in forage research, especially in the U.S., there appears to be no great incentive for them to cash in either.

“(Private companies are) in business to be profitable and forage breeding does not lend itself to a good return on investment,” says Cattani. “Who wants to buy a perennial crop that did well in the first year and did nothing thereafter?”

BSE casualty

Edward Bork, a rangeland ecology and management specialist at the University of Alberta, pins part of the blame for the “slow systematic erosion” in forage research on BSE. After BSE hit in 2002 and international barriers closed to Canadian beef and live cattle, industry priorities suddenly shifted to herd health and marketing strategies. Research into forage breeding and development became less important, given the immediate market crisis.

Another reason why forages appear to get short shrift is the very nature of the crop. Forages are perennials that take a long time to breed and even longer to show a financial return on investment. Compare that to high- value annual crops such as corn and soybeans, which see new hybrids and strong returns every year. Guess which crop gets most of the attention when it comes to breeding programs and agronomic research?

Still another problem is a basic lack of information about how to place a value on forages. Obviously, a ton of hay is worth less than a few bushels of canola or soybeans. But, as University of Manitoba agriculture dean Karin Wittenberg points out, it’s hard to measure the financial worth of grasslands because most hay and tame forages are consumed on the farms where they were grown. Since there are few price discovery or marketing mechanisms for them, it’s hard to evaluate their value.

Not just a crop

However, that’s assuming you only see hay and forages as a crop. Researchers and producers are quick to point out the value of grasslands goes far beyond that. They say grasslands also provide environmental goods and services such as water storage, flood mitigation, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction.

That’s the new frontier forages should be focusing on, says Wittenberg, a ruminant nutritionist by training.

“Forages serve a sustainability value. How you develop a forage breeding program that can serve a sustainability function as well as a competitive function — that has not been given much time and thought.”

Wittenberg says she and her colleagues have tried to put an economic value on the services grasslands and forages provide. Unfortunately, they could find virtually no data to provide hard numbers.

However, there are signs that may be changing. Bork, a forage agronomist, says policy-makers in Alberta are showing “a marked interest increase” in environmental goods and services from native grasslands and perennial forage systems.

Bork says the last six years have seen “a massive investment” in Alberta in quantifying and understanding the environmental goods and services that perennial grasslands provide. People are waking up to the fact that forages give producers a “social licence to operate” by providing public benefits in carbon sinks, biodiversity and ecological improvements, he says.

“I can tell you, we’re gaining an enormous amount of traction.”

The next step will be to use this data as ammunition in persuading regulators and policy-makers to reward landowners for these goods and services,” says Bork.

“We need to recognize it and start (implementing) ways that landowners can get paid for retaining, or even improving, these things for society’s benefit.”

More research funds

As for funding research, that may be starting to improve, too. The BCRC’s Bergen says about eight years ago Canada’s beef and forage sectors got their heads together and decided the industry had to step up to the plate instead of waiting for governments to do so. Now, 15 cents out of every dollar collected by a national checkoff on cattle sales goes toward BCRC research projects, compared to only five cents previously. Today, Bergen says, 30 per cent of BCRC’s budget focuses on forages, up from 10 per cent before. Funding is levered three to one through Growing Forward.

“It’s a bigger slice of a bigger pie,” says Bergen.

Reversing the funding decline in the private sector is resulting in new forage research positions being created in government and universities across Canada, Bergen adds.

“They’re starting to say ‘wait a minute, industry is investing in this, this is important, we’d better be in that game, too.’”

Cattani says there should be no difficulty getting graduate students to train as forage specialists, as long as funding is in place before the students arrive.

A sign, maybe, that the tide may finally be starting to turn for forage research.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of the Forage & Grassland Guide.

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