Exceptional Forages for Marginal Lands

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Side Oats Gramma photo courtesy of Agriculture Agri-Food Canada

Tame forages often outperform native species in head-to-head comparisons under optimal growing conditions. This may not be the case on “marginal land,” with its tougher environments, poorer soil, rougher topography, harsher climates, and precipitation extremes. Beef production is expected to rely more and more on marginal land, at least while returns from cash crops exceed those from cow-calf production.

Beef Cluster research led by Mike Schellenberg (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Swift Current), Eric Lamb (University of Saskatchewan) and a team of graduate students has been examining Western Canadian native plants since 2009. Some results from this study were published in 2018 (“Mixtures of native perennial forage species produce higher yields than monocultures in a long-term study”; Canadian Journal of Plant Science 98:633-647).

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Forage stand mixtures

Establishing new pastures can be expensive and producers often prioritize stand life over yield. Seeding complex mixtures of grasses and legumes that maintain highly diverse botanical composition in pastures can contribute to increased persistence, yield stability and improved productivity. Yields benefit from including highly productive as well as drought-tolerant species. While some species will not persist beyond the first three or four years, other species in the mix can fill in the gap to maintain overall yields, to a degree.

Schellenberg (2013)1 assessed the productivity and crude protein content of forage stands to determine if species show complementarity in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. The fast growing and highly competitive species dominated biomass production in the early establishment phase.  Including less productive species in the forage sward had minimal impact on pasture productivity or nutritional value under good growing conditions. However, less productive species should be included in pasture mixes when they bring beneficial traits (i.e. increasing nitrogen availability, drought resistance) to the forage stand that provide ‘insurance’ for less optimal years.

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Developing improved native and tame forage varieties for western Canada

A reliable and productive forage base is critically important to maintaining a sustainable and competitive beef industry in Canada.  Cattle producers need access to high yielding, high quality, and well adapted forage varieties to improve the economics of production, which is becoming increasingly challenging as high grain prices continually force forage onto marginal land.

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Drought tolerant forage mixtures

Because native species may increase carbon sequestration, improve wildlife habitat, lower agronomic inputs, and extend the grazing season, there is a growing interest in the use of native perennial species for seeded rangeland and reclamation following disturbance.

Diverse forage swards composed of native species have the potential to be as productive as tame monocultures in a greater range of environmental conditions. Unfortunately the information for the right combination of species is very limited.

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