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‘Making hay’ with forages

January 8, 2019

Though often overlooked, forage is the third most profitable crop for Canadian farmers, valued at more than $5 billion a year. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientists are researching it in hopes of helping farmers across the country get more out of it.

By definition, forage is food for animals—a combination of plants, shrubs and grasses that contain the nutrients animals need for digestive health and growth.

But forage can be so much more than food, explains Dr. Kathleen Glover, an AAFC forage agronomist. It also plays a role in animal productivity, farm profitability and environmental sustainability. "Its value wasn't always obvious in the past," she says. "The discussion now is how to maximize its use and improve its quality."

Environmental and animal health benefits

Forages reduce soil erosion and improve soil health and organic matter. They are considered important for crop rotation on many farms. They also absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, supporting a net decrease in greenhouse gases. And the legumes in forages help fix nitrogen (a free fertilizer) in soil.

To increase the legume component of forage mixtures, Glover is developing a research program at the Nappan Research Farm in Nova Scotia. Another Nappan scientist, plant breeder Dr. Yousef Papadopoulos, has released a new alfalfa variety adapted to diverse environments in northern latitudes that offers better quality and growth and stands up to flooding and drought.

Meanwhile, at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre in Saskatchewan, Dr. Alan Iwaasa is evaluating the forage quality of native and tame grasslands together with ruminant nutrition, livestock-grazing production, grazing behaviour and the environmental footprint of grazing. Another AAFC scientist at the Centre, Dr. Mike Schellenberg, is working to provide beef producers with perennial forage plants that can thrive in the extremes of the Prairie climate. Winterfat—a shrub that offers high nutritive value, drought resistance and the ability to control soil erosion—is on his radar.

Eventually, AAFC scientists hope to turn their findings into practical knowledge that farmers can use to make the most of forages.

For more information on AAFC research, visit Scientific achievements in agriculture.

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