With over 70 million acres of dedicated Canadian cropland and a direct economic value of $5.09 billion, forages are the country’s third-largest crop, just behind wheat valued at $5.2 billion and canola at $7.3 billion. There’s no doubt forages are good for the economy.
Perennial forages play an environmental role with the ability to reduce carbon — their root systems can store up to 2.7 times more carbon than annual crops. Carbon is sequestered deeper in the ground and because less ploughing is done on forage and grassland fields, slow the breakdown and release of carbon into the atmosphere.
“The magic of forages make agriculture one of the only industries that can actually put valuable nutrients back into the ecosystem,” says Cedric MacLeod, executive director of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association (CFGA). “So, while livestock producers are often criticized for high greenhouse gas emissions, an effective forage management system can help offset emissions.”
One study of the Alberta forage industry revealed the province could generate approximately $14 million in the provincial carbon offset market, pending the approval of forage-related offset protocols.
Other environmental benefits of forages and grasslands include reduced nitrogen fertilizer use and costs — as well as the energy costs associated with applying nutrients, increased soil quality, better control of soil erosion, improved water filtration and internal drainage, and managing herbicide resistance when forages are introduced into a grain rotation. There are also growing opportunities for forages as a source of biomass fuel and biomaterials which can help reduce Canada’s dependence on fossil fuels.
The environmental value
While the benefits of forages are known, and studies to date indicate the monetary value of their environmental impact is at least double the direct economic value, the exact value of their environmental worth is unknown.
To determine that value, the CFGA has launched a project called “High Performance Management Systems to Reduce Greenhouse Gases in Canada’s Forage and Grasslands.” This will also help the association develop and test a carbon-reduction protocol built for high-performance forage management systems in Canada.
The CFGA began the project in February by reviewing existing quantification protocols and greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation research from across Canada and around the world.
“This literature review will provide an understanding of what is currently out there,” says project lead Josh Lamont. “Our goal is not to duplicate existing quantification protocols but to fill and improve on the gaps that presently exist.”
The CFGA is also working with producer groups and experts to identify the beneficial management practices (BMP) for forage and rangeland producers to improve the ability to sequester carbon in the soils.
“These BMPs will be developed into the manual that will outline the methodology in the quantification protocol and showcase how producers can use the BMPs to implement carbon projects,” says Lamont.
The BMP manual, which will be written for farmers and agronomists, will include information on high-performance management systems such as the use of certified seed for highly digestible forage species and varieties; intensive rotational grazing systems; intensive forage harvesting systems; forage stand establishment, fertility and management for high-performance yields; and advanced crop production systems for perennial and annual forages such as no-till cropping and crop covers.
“Our immediate next steps are to highlight the findings of our literature review, both science and BMP, with researchers and producers from across Canada at the CFGA’s upcoming annual conference in November,” says Lamont.
Later in the project, the CFGA will pilot the BMPs and quantification methodology on several test sites across Canada where producers can see the implementation of the protocol in action. This phase will include a series of knowledge transfer workshops and crop tours over two growing seasons, five demonstration sites located at various academic and/or applied sites and measurement and analysis of the economic and environmental impacts of pilot farm activities.
“The pilot is intended to gauge the sector-wide opportunities for enhancing carbon sequestration and creating carbon offset credits for Canadian grassland managers,” says Lamont. “This phase will field test the protocol and identify any outstanding gaps and challenges in protocol implementation, and test the ability and willingness of primary producers to maintain the necessary records management systems to allow for farm-scale GHG quantification.”
The CFGA project is one of 20 new research projects taking place across the country thanks to the $27 million, five-year (2016-21) Agricultural Greenhouse Gases Program (AGGP), which covers four priority areas of research: livestock systems, cropping systems, agricultural water use efficiency and agro-forestry. The purpose of the AGGP is to help create technologies, practices and processes to help the agricultural sector adjust to climate change and improve soil and water conservation by developing new farming practices and methods. It is also expected to help farmers increase their understanding of GHG emissions.
The Canadian forage and grasslands sector is the single largest land use component of Canadian agriculture with roughly 36 million acres devoted to native rangeland and the remaining 34 million dedicated to the production of annual and perennial tame forages, including 675,000 acres of corn silage.
“While it is well known that forages create valuable carbon sinks, to date, no approved carbon sequestration quantification protocol has been approved for Canadian conditions,” says Lamont. “This creates two distinct challenges.”
The first, he explains, is that the value of the ecological goods and services provided by the grasslands sector to Canadian society cannot be quantified.
The second is that individual landowners cannot quantify the economic value of contributions they make to increase soil carbon storage through the adoption of beneficial management practices and/or the use of new, high-performance forage genetics. That means no carbon offset credit value can be assigned to improvements at the farm level.
“Without an approved protocol to quantify carbon sequestration, the significant contribution of the Canadian forage and grasslands sector to combat climate change will continue to be undervalued,” Lamont says. “Additionally, addressing these issues will support agri-food supply chain sustainability initiatives to instil public confidence in the management practices of Canadian farmers.”
This article originally appeared in the 2017 edition of the Forage & Grassland Guide.