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Forages were the foundation for researcher’s celebrated career

In a career that already spans more than five decades, Dr. David Christensen, of the University of Saskatchewan, has been a major contributor to the research in support of Canadian forage crops. His substantial contributions on a regional, national and international level were recently recognized by the Saskatchewan Forage Council (SFC) when he was presented with the 2017 Forage Industry Innovation Award.

Christensen, an emeritus professor with the department of animal science, has been a professor and researcher at the University’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources since 1965. He’s received numerous honours over the years in recognition of his studies into dairy and beef cattle nutrition and meat science, and his major contributions to international agricultural initiatives.

“The productivity that can be obtained from forages is not always fully recognized or achieved,” says Christensen. The role they play in animal agriculture has been an underlying theme of his career, whether he was studying their impact on individual animals or overall production systems.

Over time Christensen and his team investigated the nutritional composition of several forages and their influence on animal intake. “It’s a matter of knowing what the energy and nutrient requirements are for a particular class of animal,” Christensen adds. “We measured the intake and digestibility of everything we could find from slough hay to corn silage.”

“A major finding that came out of that work was the recommendation for barley silage (in Western Canada) to be cut at mid-dough or later,” he says. This updated recommendation overturned a previous Kansas-based standard that suggested barley should be cut at the boot stage.

“Compared to the American Midwest, we have a longer day length and lower growing temperatures, so forage quality holds up better under our growing conditions,” he says.

photo: Saskatchewan Forage Council

His forage-related research covered a wide swath from storage strategies, palatability, barley variety evaluations, use of low-quality forages, forage degradation in the rumen to grazing behaviour and more.

Tech transfer was sometimes a catalyst. “A lot of research has been done to verify what innovative producers are doing,” he adds. “One of the favourite questions to try and answer is whether corn silage is consistently better than barley silage,” which has to account for growing conditions, varieties, and producer preferences, he says.

Though his career has been rich in research, Christensen was also a dedicated teacher, in Canada and abroad, and in some cases taught two or more generations of students. “There’s that challenge of people with young minds wanting to know how things work,” says Christensen while admitting curious students motivated him to stay current with the latest work in forages and cattle. Many of the graduate and veterinary students he supervised have gone on to serve the Canadian livestock and forage industry, including Beef Industry Research Chair (and Canadian Cattlemen columnist) Dr. John McKinnon.

Christensen has made contributions on the international forage scene as well, visiting more than 25 countries. He created dairy and forage production programs in developing countries, served as a senior lecturer in Uganda, and worked to develop a dehydrated alfalfa export market in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. A highlight for him was working with the Canadian International Development Agency to complete baseline range surveys in the under land of China’s Gobi Desert. “It was an effort to estimate the carrying capacity of the region,” he says.

“Some areas were well managed, other areas were extensively overgrazed.” Many projects built upon that reference data.

These days Christensen is co-operating on projects with colleagues such as John McKinnon and Peiqiang Yu, and organizations like Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. His current work includes assessing neutral detergent fibre (NDF) utilization in barley silages and evaluating feedlot and dairy barley silage varieties, and he acts as a technical adviser for Alberta Milk as well.

Dr. Christensen’s lengthy career resulted in tangible improvements in Canada’s forage sector. His extension efforts have an impact on farmers in Canada and abroad and he inspired countless students who went on to become leaders in their own right.

“My work was not always focused solely on forage, but it always circled back to forage,” says Christensen reflecting on his award.

The SFC created the Forage Industry Innovation Award in 2008 to honour individuals or groups displaying exemplary innovation, leadership, service and stewardship in Saskatchewan’s forage industry. Nominations are accepted annually until August 2.

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