Forage Research in Canada

 Science Director Reynold Bergen | May 24 2012 | VAHS

After 10 years of extremely narrow or negative margins, the outlook for Canada’s cow-calf sector has become brighter.

Growing market access to an increasing global demand for beef means that feeders and packers are competing aggressively for the calves and fat cattle produced from Canada’s smaller cow herd. Grain prices are also high, so grazers are competing with the grain sector for land. High feed grain prices encourage longer backgrounding and grazing periods prior to feedlot finishing. All of these factors point to the need for scientifically validated tools to increase forage productivity per acre.

At one time, Canada’s forage research was almost solely funded by government. The beef industry focused on animal health, productivity, beef quality and food safety research, and didn’t notice that retiring government forage researchers were not being replaced. This led to a drastic loss in Canada’s forage production and breeding research expertise. Provincial forage councils recognized this problem, but had no check-off system to raise forage research funds.

Canada’s beef industry eventually realized that more productive forages would require a greater check-off investment in forage research. Between 2001 and 2008, the Beef Cattle Research Council allocated 10 per cent of its research budget towards forage and grasslands research. Since 2009, this allocation has doubled to 20 per cent.

Last month, representatives from Canada’s seedstock, cow-calf, forage, feeding, animal health and packing sectors attended a National Beef Cattle Industry Research Workshop that was sponsored by Canada’s Beef Value Chain Roundtable. Leading up to this meeting, the Beef Cattle Research Council surveyed 25 federal, provincial and industry beef research funders to learn which types of research had been funded between 2007 and 2011.

As the graph below indicates, the survey showed that the lion’s share of total beef research funding went into prion research (24 per cent). Beef quality, animal health, and feed grains and feed efficiency each received between 16 and 21 per cent of total beef research funding. Forage and grassland researchers received 13 per cent of total beef research funds; only food safety research received less at 7 per cent.









Sixty-seven per cent of the total forage funding over the past five years was directed toward tame forages. Tame forage breeding was focused on sainfoin and alfalfa, probably because there are almost no active tame grass breeders remaining in Canada. Nearly half of the tame forage production research was focused on weed and pest control, with less directed towards improved establishment, persistence, quality or yield. Tame forage utilization research focused on extended grazing, forage finished beef, or grazing alfalfa or sainfoin. Considerable tame forage research was also focused on environmental issues such as carbon sequestration, water use efficiency and methane production by grazing cattle.

Annual forages received 21 per cent of total forage funding. This research was largely focused on breeding and variety testing for improved quality and yield, evaluating forage quality and reducing leaf and nutrient loss in swaths, and swath grazing and animal performance.

The remaining 12 per cent of funding was directed towards native forage research. Half went towards characterizing bloat safe native clovers, and forage quality and drought resistance in rough fescues. About a third funded weed and pest control and rejuvenation of native pastures, and a small amount supported grazing trials involving native forages.

Workshop participants, having discussed how the forage research funding had been allocated over the past five years, considered the current challenges and opportunities facing their sectors. Those discussing forage and grassland issues identified a clear need for research that will:

  1. Develop new forage varieties with increased yield, nutritional quality and stand life (recognizing that regional environmental differences can be important);
  2. Take advantage of new molecular and genetic technologies that can produce faster and more targeted genetic improvements;
  3. Follow a “systems-based” approach considering the entire beef and forage production chain, and incorporates a meaningful producer-level economic analysis demonstrating real benefits;
  4. Clearly measure the environmental benefits of forage and grasslands, and demonstrate how maintaining and improving forages and grassland benefits both producers and society; and
  5. Improve the productivity of native range by developing breeding, grazing and rejuvenation strategies that improve forage productivity on sensitive marginal land without degrading it.

Accomplishing these goals will be difficult. Coordination and cooperation among all of Canada’s beef research funders is required to generate the very large, long-term investment needed to rebuild the forage breeding and research expertise the industry has lost. Reaping the full benefits of this research will also require extension and technology transfer to demonstrate the benefits of adopting the new varieties, management practices and technologies developed through this research.

After 10 years of adopting and adapting innovative forage and cattle management practices to minimize winter feeding and overall production costs, Canada’s cattle industry needs proven, cost-effective tools to improve forage and grassland productivity. I am optimistic that the industry and government funders who participated in this exercise will work together to rebuild the research capacity and support the work necessary to develop these tools.