What should you consider when evaluating the performance of grazing systems and forage production? According to Sean McGrath, management is the factor least often measured in the forage industry, but doing so can keep you accountable for your management decisions and positively impact performance.
McGrath, who ranches with his family at Vermilion, Alta., discussed this at the 2018 Canadian Forage and Grassland Association Conference in Calgary last November. The McGraths run around 300 head at their home base and also have a custom grazing outfit at Meadow Lake, Sask. McGrath also consults on beef genetics and range management, and is the Canadian representative for Land EKG, a company that provides rangeland monitoring systems.
While McGrath stressed the importance of monitoring key aspects of forage production, he argued that it’s even more important for producers to use those measurements to keep themselves accountable, even when it can be uncomfortable.
“We need to be accountable for our management decisions, and if we’re not happy with it we need to change it or tweak it or experiment with it or do something different,” he said.
“The real opportunity in the forage industry lies in the thing we most often fail to measure, and that’s management,” he continued. In this regard, evaluating management decisions is just as important as benchmarking production.
“As a mindset, that’s really where we need to get to,” he said. “We are competing with other industries for the same landbase. We bring things to that landbase that other industries cannot do. We can give back to that landbase what other industries may only be able to take from. That’s a huge gift but a huge responsibility.”
This isn’t always easy, especially when it’s necessary to take responsibility for a disappointing result.
“But when you solve it or you fix it or you move it forward, it’s the most rewarding thing we can do as an industry,” he said. “The technical part is probably the easy part. It’s the human part and the how do you apply those things into the system that are really useful to the whole deal.”
Of those technical aspects to be measured, inputs are easy to track, though McGrath suggested reframing how we view investments specific to forage production.
“Three hundred dollars an acre is not an unrealistic number to establish a forage stand. And this is the challenge: that investment is going to pay out over three to 37 years,” he said. “We probably need to look at our inputs and measure them but also think about that investment in real terms of what it applies to.”
On that note, McGrath discussed the challenge of competition for land that could also be used for annual crops. “We’ve got to realize that profitability determines acreage,” he said.
Using figures from the 2017 AgriProfit$ report from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, he compared the gross margin made by the top producers of LibertyLink Canola, which was $323 per acre, to the gross margin of $40 per acre made by producers of alfalfa hay.
“That’s something we need to address in this industry.”
Measuring actual production can be done in a number of ways, including benchmarking with transects in specific areas, feed testing to monitor forage quality and calculating animal unit grazing days. McGrath uses Land EKG monitoring technology as part of his benchmarking efforts in both grazing management and hay production.
“I come back to the exact same place every year, I drop that hoop down, I can measure my production, and… when you clip it off and measure it and weigh it in grams, multiply by 20, that converts to pounds per acre directly,” he explained.
Another area he believes should be evaluated is the application of technology in forage production, given that people may not be taking advantage of the innovations available. “It’s the role of the manager. We need to get some measure of how that innovation is being applied as an industry.”
One such example is using electric fencing to give cells or pastures a break between grazing. “A low-cost single wire electric or portable electric fence can greatly improve pasture and forage growth due simply to allowing already grazed areas to have time to recover,” he later said.
In comparison, conventional barbed-wire fencing is much more costly and not nearly as easy to move once installed, which can make it harder to control grazing. Soil testing pastures and cropland to assist with nutrient management is another example of applying technology to forage production.
On the topic of applying innovations, McGrath mentioned the difficulty that some have in adopting new forage varieties. He’s working on adopting new varieties into his own forage production program.
“We are rolling crop acres into forage and renovating tame forage acres with new varieties. This has led to some pretty big gains in productivity, even considering good production using existing older stands.”
The McGraths are also looking at new annual crop varieties and seeing significantly higher yields with some of these varieties.
“A new example for us will hopefully be some of the new triticale varieties this spring,” he explained after the conference. “On the forage side, we have just put in a new sainfoin variety last year with a heavy stand of alfalfa to give us a high legume content and reduce bloat risk.”
McGrath also stressed the importance of measuring what forage production adds back to the soil and better communicating these benefits.
“This, to me, is actually one of the strengths of our forage production,” he said, noting that he has started examining soil biology, nutrients and organic matter on his own operation. “We’re leaving behind some altered soil biology. We’re doing some things with carbon, we’re doing some things with organic matter.”
He’s personally interested in monitoring the carbon added back to the soil through forage production, which has led him to explore other ecological goods and services (EG&S).
“Carbon is what we can use to engage the public to join the conversation about the other EG&S,” he said. “We need to measure it. We need to talk about it. We can add nitrogen, we add litter, we add soil health, we’re a disease break.”
He recommended considering performance in the context of the year’s conditions, which will often determine which grazing systems are best suited to the moment.
“The system we use at home, I always tell people it’s an ‘it depends’ grazing system. What do you do? It depends. If it doesn’t rain we do something different than if it does. If it rains on the tenth of June I do something different than if it rains on the tenth of September,” he explained. “What do you measure and how do you manage it in the context of your own operation?”
This kind of evaluation provides the opportunity for forage producers to add value back to their customers. Now, McGrath argued, the task is to explore how this can be done and how that value can be communicated.
“Our greatest weaknesses are also where our greatest opportunity lies,” he said. “There’s things we can do simply. I look at our operation, and personally we’ve got all kinds of opportunities to increase our production, expand our production, change the way we do things.”
For example, there are opportunities to prove value to customers in how you market hay for sale, such as feed testing and weighing bales, but McGrath noted that many will skip these steps or advertise factors that don’t actually add value.
“We feed-tested feed at home in the same year. Some of it had no rain and some of it had an inch and a half of rain on it, and the stuff that had an inch and a half of rain was better. If I was advertising it I’d sell the other stuff and say ‘no rain,’ but that’s not adding value,” he said.
“As an industry we have to keep asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to add value to our customer?’… There’s all kinds of opportunities in this industry. We’ve got to measure and communicate it.”