Forages in the Canadian Prairies

In Canada, forages cover nearly half of our cultivated land, making forage production vital in Canadian agriculture. This vast coverage in Western Canada may be due to beef cattle rations, and in Eastern Canada dairy cattle rations. In any sector of agriculture innovation is the key to success. When dealing with forages the largest road block hinges on four major issues: economic and environmental sustainability, social acceptability of farming activities, climate change and population growth.

On the forage side of things we can tackle some of these issues with improvement of both yield and nutritive values, which present the two mainstays of successful forage production. Increasing yields will not only cause an increase in profit but will also increase competitiveness within the dairy and beef industry. On the flip side, increasing nutritive values like sugar and breeding for better digestibility will increase their share in rations. With this increase, grains could be freed up and available for human consumption. While both objectives seem easy to achieve other factors play a role in developing these new forages.

Potential yield of any crop depends on a range of conditions including solar radiation, temperatures and soil nutrients available to the plant. Sadly in our region these potentials are squandered because of cold, droughts, pests, poor drainage and a multitude of other factors.  Improving the yield potential is the starting point for many research projects and will continue to be the target for future research.

When breaking down the overall research side of forages, reducing the difference between potential and actual yields seems a more promising approach. Little to no research has been done to quantify the difference. We first must identify the effects of different stressors on our forages, so we can then develop cultivars and agronomic practices that will enable them to better tolerate these stresses. One of Western Canada forages’ struggles is our cold winter climates. These cold winter climates cause significant yield losses of perennial forages, especially in the more winter sensitive species like alfalfa. Using a new selection approach, Canadian forage breeders have already increased cold tolerance of alfalfa and red clover by 5 C. However, this shows that cold climate is not the main limiting factor when developing new forage cultivars, many believe that digestibility is.

Improving digestibility unfortunately usually leads to a decrease in yield or persistence. For example: shortening the interval between cutting times has a direct effect on decreased yields. The same applies to cutting forages at younger growth stages; usually a decrease in yield is seen.

The overall challenge forage growers face is increasing digestibility while still maintaining or increasing actual yields. Some research done by the CFGA (Canadian Forages and Grasslands Association) has already been carried out in timothy showing that decreasing the ratio of lignin and cellulose is feasible and achievable. Similar studies have been done by an American Research team. Canadian forage research will need to encompass multidisciplinary research methods to reach these goals. But based on past research, there is hope for higher yielding forages with increased digestibility in Western Canada!