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Forages & Grasslands: How They Contribute to the Preservation of Biodiversity

In the earliest theoretical literature on market economy, land is often cited as the only real source of wealth as it was the sole element in the equation that yielded a lot more than what it took in. Former President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt was once quoted as saying: “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”

How we manage land today still remains one of the most important issues in maintaining our ability to cultivate it and continue to produce food for the ever growing population.

In managing the land, however, less can be more, as in the case of forages and grasslands.

As the modern agricultural practices involve quite a number of mechanical and chemical inputs in the production process, these elements can, paradoxically, deprive the soil of some (or all) of its diversity while helping increase the yield and quality of the crops it is seeded with.

“A tame forage stand can have as few as one species and as many as 20. Native grasslands can have as few as 10 species or as many as 150 or more,” says Karin Lindquist, a Forage-Beef Specialist with the Ag- Info Centre of the provincial government.

“Croplands are, 99 per cent of the time, going to have only one species present-a monoculture, if you will.”

Clearly, that statement speaks for the vital function of forage and grasslands in sustaining the biodiversity the soil naturally possesses.

However, that is not the only positive environmental benefit that grasslands and forages serve.

“Grasslands are covered in perennial vegetation, or vegetation that covers the soil surface 12 months of the year. Croplands only have vegetation that covers the soil surface for about four months out of 12,” says Lindquist.

“There is more litter present (on grassland), so a lot more vegetation is covering the soil surface. This is very important for erosion control from wind and water.”

There are quite a number of other services that grasslands and forages offer to the environmental sustainability, according to Lindquist.

These include protection of the integrity of the soil, maintenance of unfettered natural cycles of water, nitrogen and carbon and increased water holding capacity of the soil, among many others.

However, while the value of protecting the biodiversity and natural cycles of the soil is almost universally appreciated, the soil itself doesn’t generate income or support livelihoods. So the primary goal of maintaining forages and grasslands is and will remain feeding livestock.

And that does mean forages/grasslands need to be managed and should not be left off to be looked after Mother Nature only.

The management decisions, though, are more than just simply deciding whether the land is to be used for crop production or haying or as forage stand.

Lindquist says producers should carefully weigh a number of important factors before making a final decision on how to make the best use of their land. These factors include soil type and its characteristics, topography, accessibility to the area, type of vegetation present or the types of plant communities present (treed areas or grassland areas), climate (precipitation and even evapotranspiration rate), presence of endangered/threatened/rare species (plants or animals) and potential for improvements to the landscape by way of presence of weeds, eroded areas, forage yield, etc.

“You can have an area with flat land and good soil, but the plant community there needs grazers much more so than hay equipment,” she adds. “Then those grazers are going to take precedence over that haying equipment.”

There are even more subtle details to be taken into consideration in deciding what will roam over your acreage as Lindquist explains:

“There are a wide variety of species, both native and tame, that are not adapted or not suited for haying. Low-growing plants get missed by the knives of the haybine, but not the hungry mouths of cattle and sheep. Tame grasses like Meadow Brome (Bromus biebersteinii) are ideal as pasture plants, as are native grasses like Sheep's Fescue (Festuca saximontana) and rough fescue. Other species are sensitive to the impacts of the tractor wheel, like Moss Phlox (Phlox hoodii) or biological soil crusts made up of a variety of lichen and fungi. It may seem odd to read this, but these organisms tend to recover better after a long period of rest after being impacted by hooves than being impacted by vehicular rubber tires. The reason may be because these ruminant animals stand on four "pegs," in a manner of speaking, that have a sharper impact to the surface with a smaller surface area of coverage, rather than the rolling, smooth impact to the surface like with a typical tire that has a larger surface area.”

And not least to be counted as a major factor in forage/grassland management is the time. There is a time for grazing, there is a time to give a rest to the land to allow plants to recover and these times never come in a recurring rhythm as they should be decided in connection with other factors, including moisture levels and weather conditions, among others.

“If you look after land, the land will look after you,” says Lindquist.

“It is our duty to make sure that these lands will continue to be both productive and ecologically healthy--diverse, productive, biologically active--because we need them for our survival, just as the plants and the animals also need those lands.”

By: Mustafa Eric Media Coordinator Agriculture Financial Services Corporation

Photo Credit: Lee Gunderson

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Photo Credit: Lee Gunderson

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