top of page

The Challenges of Growing Quality Forages

Perception that forages are too weather-dependent or that producers plant one year and leave them alone for three must be challenged.

The name varies from farm to farm and from one region of the country to another. Some refer to it under the blanket term “forage” while others attempt to be more specific — hay, haylage, silage, dry hay or pasture. Whatever the term, two distinct trends have unfolded in the past five years: forage production is declining, and with it — say some in the industry — the quality.

Statistically and anecdotally, the numbers reflect the drop. Statistics Canada numbers for 1981 to 2011 (see graph below) indicate hay and other fodder crops area rose steadily between 1986 and 2006, and then declined, losing acres to oilseeds and pulses, especially in the West.

Some of that trend may be due to increase of canola, pulse and soybean acres — many of those acres, and some in the East — have come out of forages.

Due to factors such as larger acreages, larger livestock operations and producers needing to spend more time with their animals, forages may not be getting the management attention they deserve, but some extension agronomists are trying to reverse that.

Boosting management

Many advisers and specialists have their opinions on improving forage production and quality, yet it seems one recommendation makes the most sense: get the best start. That can include drilling of the seed (not broadcasting it), using starter fertilizer with the drill (especially calcium, sulphur and magnesium) and paying better attention to early weed control.

Perspectives vary, but broadcasting seed is seen by some as little more than a “controlled spill.” There’s also more packing required. Using a drill has the greater potential for more even emergence and growth.

As for weed management, at least in Ontario, there is a lack of registration of more-effective herbicides such as Broadstrike, which is already registered for use in Ontario, just not for alfalfa. Instead, producers are left with 2,4-DB or a tank mix of 2,4-DB with something like MCPA. The problem with 2,4-DB is that some producers don’t like it because of stress on alfalfa.

“Too often, we just want to take the easy way out and talk about N, P and K.” – Jeff Sherman, CanGrow Crop Solutions

Time management

Another disincentive to forages is the commitment to a three- or four-year crop. Producers who rely on forage generally want to spend more time in the barn, which means less on forage management.

For Carl Loewith, time management comes down to two things: finding the right production system and hiring the right people. Loewith, a dairy producer who farms just west of Ancaster, Ont., is a first-year no tiller with his forage crop, and he hires custom workers, allowing him to spend more time paying attention to the other end of the operation.

Loewith doesn’t agree that forage production yields are in decline.

“It’s just that they’re not keeping pace with the advances that other crops are experiencing, and the technology that’s been incorporated in others. I think we may be holding our own and we should be advancing but other crops are doing a better job.”

Perception that forages are too weather-dependent or that producers plant one year and leave them alone for three must be challenged.

Some of the biggest challenges are still wrapped up in the basics of good weed-free establishment in that initial year, followed by attention to fertility in subsequent years.

“I think we’re still stuck in that mindset that ‘we’re going to plant this crop, it’ll be good for three or four years, and we’ll plant it and maybe fertilize it once a year and we’ll let it do its own thing,’” says Loewith.

“I don’t think we’ve done the research that other crops have done in terms of seeding rates, plant population, the fertility and the timing of fertility. A lot of research is going into the more popular crops — and forages don’t have the glitz or bling that corn, soybeans or wheat have, so farmers believe it’s a relatively cheap crop to grow, and they treat it that way.”

What’s the yield?

Another problem is that forage yields are difficult to measure. Cash croppers know their bushels per acre, but the average forage producer can’t quote tons per acre. Forages are generally put in silos or in big bales without being weighed. Measuring the effect of different production practices is difficult if growers don’t have a good handle on yields.

As for no tilling alfalfa, Loewith is hesitant to talk about any long-term benefits — he’s only been at it for a year. But a lot depends on the custom operator. In the end, it translates to less stress and less time spent in the field. He’s uncertain how no tilling might work on heavier ground, although there are examples of other growers on heavier soils that are making it work. But on lighter soils like sandy loams, it’s fine. Loewith says he will do the same next year.

“There are some significant pros: first all of all, it’s a lot less work for us — because we hire somebody to do the no tilling, so we’re not working these fields. The gentleman we have comes in with a 40-foot drill, so he can cover a lot of ground — and it’s just a phone call for us. We’re not working that field two or three times before or packing it after.”

Communications also key

Thomas Ferguson, a forage and grazier specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), sees definite benefits in custom work. But the communications channels must be open and clear to ensure the work is done the way it needs to be done to get high-quality forages off the field at that proper maturity.

“When I talk about ‘quality hay,’ I refer to three things: harvesting at the correct maturity, harvesting at the correct moisture content, and having the proper storage of the hay,” says Ferguson.

“With high-producing dairy cows, it’s really important to have that early maturity but for many other end-uses, you don’t have as high crude protein, and you can let the plants mature a little more to get more tonnage off the fields. It’s still really important that the forages are harvested at the proper moisture level for the storage system that you have, and we don’t lose any dry matter — if they’re being fermented.”

If it’s for dry hay, the producer needs to make sure it’s dry enough to prevent mould or it doesn’t become dusty in storage.

It’s not necessarily that forage quality is in decline, but that other crops are advancing faster.

Measuring the value

Ferguson notes that since most of the crop fed on-farm to livestock, growers don’t see a financial transaction. Many underestimate the value that forages bring to their operation, so advisers, feed specialists and extension personnel need to do a better job of showing the financial returns.

“The environmental benefits are huge, too,” says Ferguson. “Adding forages to the rotation improves soil structure, drainage and water retention — and it increases the organic matter. And it’ll add residual nitrogen to the following crop, so those extra benefits will increase the profitability of the rest of the rotation, and you can add up to 15 per cent in yield potential just to the corn crop that’s added the year after the forages are taken out.”

Ferguson echoes Loewith’s comments on the importance of fertility and an early start.

“We need to see more even emergence with our alfalfa in order to have better weed control, as well,” says Ferguson. “We want to make sure that the plants all get off to the same start so that we’re not going in when some plants are at two leaves and some are at four. Doing a better job of getting the plants to emerge means weed control will see benefits of that throughout the life of the field, and you’ll get increased tonnage on every cut with good stem longevity as well.”

Tests, tests and more tests

Many producers and advisers talk about the lack of research for forage relative to corn and soybeans. Jeff Sherman is trying to change that.

As a dairy specialist recently hired by CanGrow, Sherman brings his years of experience with the American dairy sector as well as time spent in the feed industry in Ontario. He agrees production is down, but that in certain instances, quality can be improved.

Sherman is focusing on improving the soil activity and watching the impact on feed quality, uptake and performance. In particular, he’s looking at cation uptake, and methods of increasing it. He says cations help to produce sugars, the sugars help to produce the starches and the starches help to produce fats (or fatty acids), which are critical in digestibility.

Sherman says it’s not a well-known concept, and it can be a challenge for the industry to grasp. He says growers are not doing the best job of matching fertilizer applications to crop uptake and that more growers are over-applying, especially their nitrogen. The answer is a “whole systems” approach, not just with the crop in the field, but including the soil, roots, organic matter, and nutrient uptake.

Understand the soil

Many dairy producers rely on the MILK2006 feed calculator, and Sherman agrees that it’s a good foundation for measuring feed quality. However, it doesn’t address the shortfalls seen from soil test results. Soil activity needs to be part of the equation, understanding that it’s alive and moving constantly.

“Too often, we just want to take the easy way out, whether we’re dairy farmers or grain farmers, we want to talk about N, P and K — and it’s not just N, P and K,” says Sherman.

For example, he cites involves four years of alfalfa and an average harvest of 10 tons of dry matter per acre. Alfalfa will generally contain two to three per cent potassium — at 10 tons (20,000 lbs.) of dry matter, that’s 400 pounds of potassium per year leaving the field.

Producers also need to be aware of relative feed value and relative feed quality, as well as testing their forages to determine the balance of amino acids, particularly methionine and lysine.

There are certainly encouraging signs of opportunity and recognition in forage production, and the potential that comes out of that process. But there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of the Forage & Grassland Guide.

By: Ralph Pearce

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Instagram Social Icon
Select a Topic

Photo Credit: Lee Gunderson

bottom of page