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Native forages offer resilience against Mother Nature

Long-lived native forages complement tame forages nicely — but they have their own merits that make them more competitive than their tame counterparts

Native forages are making a comeback with cattle feeders who are looking for a way to work with — not against — Mother Nature.

“Native species complement tame forages,” said federal research scientist Alan Iwaasa.

“When used with tame species, native species have merit and can be used quite effectively if you have the land base in our grazing systems in Western Canada.”

Native species make for “a more sustainable and resilient forage,” but are sometimes taken for granted, Iwaasa said during a Beef Cattle Research Council webinar.

“The remaining western grasslands for Canada is estimated to be only about 11.4 million hectares, compared to around 61.5 million hectares we used to have (in 1995),” he said, adding Alberta’s total grassland area is now about 5.6 million hectares.

“A large majority of the grasslands has been lost.”

That loss is partly due to increased cropping, but also because of a rise in tame forages. Cattle feeders often think they can get better daily gain for less money with tame forages, but that’s not always the case, Iwaasa said.

“The relative merits of native versus tame forage species for use on rangelands and on pastures have really been a controversial topic,” he said. “Sometimes, there is a lot of extreme emotion in these areas. I just want to find the best forage that will work for that particular producer.”

Like tame forages, grazing native species comes with a range of benefits, including improved biodiversity, soil health, and increased soil organic carbon. And they have good feed value.

“Native pastures can provide a really excellent forage resource and good animal performance,” said Iwaasa. “Animals can really do quite well on these native pastures. Forage production with native species is often comparable or better than certain tame species.”

Hardy and productive

Part of the reason for that is the longevity of native species.

“Native forage pasture systems are sustainable and long lived, and that’s something that’s very enticing for producers. They’re able to seed it and then have a productive stand for a long period of time. Once you get them established, they can be there for a generation.”

Native forage species are also well adapted to extreme weather.

“It’s difficult to envision a selection of tame or introduced grasses that could provide the same tolerance and ability to adjust to changing environmental conditions from one extreme to another,” said Iwaasa. “I don’t think any of us doubt the fact that we’re having lots of changes occurring in our environment. This is where we need forage species that can really be adapted to these sometime extreme environmental conditions.”

In an ongoing study that started in 2001, researchers compared complex and simple native forage mixtures to evaluate the productivity of different native species. And while the complex 12-species mixture performed roughly the same as the simpler seven-species mixture, the native species had “quite stable” dry-matter production of roughly 1,000 kilograms per hectare over the course of the study.

“These native species do perform quite well, and the production was able to maintain over a number of different environmental conditions,” said Iwaasa. “Although they don’t have large amounts of production like some of our tame species, the native grasses can weather the storms — the different environmental conditions — and they can give you some consistent forage production, even in very dry or very wet years.”

But seed costs and availability can vary for native species, so careful planning is important.

“Too often, I’ve heard producers questioning the ability to actually establish native species,” said Iwaasa. “There is a protocol you have to follow. You do have to have some weed control, get the land prepared, and make sure you have good native seed.

“There’s not a magic bullet. But it is possible.”

This article was originally published on the Alberta Farmer Express.

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