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Getting back to the basics: The fundamentals of good forages

New market opportunities may beckon, but quality remains the key

Every time commodity prices start to cycle lower, questions are asked and pencils are put to paper: “Should I start thinking of a cropping alternative?” In Eastern Canada the considerations are often edible beans, identity-preserved soybeans, oats…  maybe even barley or flax.

But what about forages?

The answer can be less than straightforward, depending on whom you ask. Today’s challenges to produce quality and quantity are different than 15 years ago. Some are based on demographics, or the availability of land and dairy quota. In the past three years, there also has been considerable speculation on the potential for export opportunities through the construction of an alfalfa compaction facility somewhere in Eastern Canada.

Despite the potential for marketing forages to New York State or the Middle East, reality always comes back to the fundamentals. Forage growers tend to adhere to the notion of “the more you know, the better you grow.”

Joel Bagg, forage adviser with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), says growing forages for compaction or export requires strict quality standards. Stepping into a relatively new crop often requires new equipment purchases or the adoption of a new production regimen, not to mention a level of familiarity that takes several years of experience.

Planting considerations

Still, there is room for a quick refresher on the basics of forage production. For instance, is spring or fall better for establishing a good hay crop?

Aric Bos and Martina Pfister, agronomists for DuPont Pioneer, say spring is becoming the easier choice for establishment. It depends on the individual producer’s situation, and there are some who simply default to the fall because there’s a wider window. But spring planting can offer several advantages.

“Moisture is the biggest challenge,” says Bos, who is based in Exeter, Ont. “This past year (2014) there was no problem: I saw a lot of good, established forage crops planted mid- to late-August after wheat, but there was plenty of moisture throughout the year. The long-term trend would say that moisture is a lot more dependable in the spring, so that would be my first choice. Get it in between the end of March and most of April is a good window — even until mid-May, depending on where you live.”

But that may not be convenient from a logistics standpoint, as it conflicts with the other seeding and spraying operations. On the other hand, late summer to early fall provides a wider window following wheat harvest, with the midsummer dry spell usually done by the time a forage crop should be planted.

But finding the balance between sufficient moisture late in the season and a narrowing window before first frost may be expecting too much. By the same token, heavy driving rains in May, June or October can make things difficult for early stage forage stands.

That’s also why Pfister also prefers spring, and the earlier the better.

“Alfalfa only needs 3 C to germinate, so it can go in earlier in the spring,” says Pfister, who is based near Baltimore, Ont., just north of Cobourg. “But what we need in the summer is about six weeks of growth before the first frost, so if the alfalfa can’t get established enough — whether it’s due to dry weather or planted too late — the risk of winterkill is higher.”

Other influences

Pfister notes a pair of trends taking place in forage production. One is more young farmers are entering the family operation, so it’s important in helping them understand why their fathers or grandfathers grew forages as feed for their cows. And Bos notes some recent management challenges such as herbicide resistance provide an opportunity to put forage into the rotation.

“Just by geography, there might be some weed resistance problems, like some of the counties of southwestern Ontario where there’s dairy but also pressure with glyphosate resistance. A lot of those guys would be growing Roundup Ready corn and soys in the other parts of the rotation, and that can make things more complicated in terms of keeping glyphosate resistance at bay.”

Bos says that even in times of higher commodity prices, the renewed interest in forages has been positive. Farmers generally have a good grasp of their cost of production, he notes, and many are “pencilling out” the numbers for forages, even if they’re not involved in livestock.

In the 1990s, Ridgetown College provided a comprehensive study that found that wheat in the rotation provides a yield boost to subsequent corn and soybean crops. Bos says forages can do the same thing.

“From what I’ve seen, OMAFRA and the industry and also the University (of Guelph) have done a good job of showing the benefits of alfalfa in the rotation,” says Bos, citing the potential for a seven to 10 per cent benefit to the corn crop that follows alfalfa.

“Even though growers are making margins in their cash crop ventures, they’ve started looking at forages with more interest. And there’s a pretty well-established hay market that’s always been there, and that always has a need for good-quality forage. Hay making — at least dry hay — has always been something of an art form.”

Pfister adds that  farmers do realize the importance of good-quality forages. “When you have high commodity prices it means that any supplementary feed coming in will be more expensive, too. So the better quality forage is, the cheaper the feed bill may be at the end of the month.”

This article appears in the 2015 Forage & Grassland Guide

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