Forage a huge, underappreciated part of agriculture

Rural Revival By: Laura Rance
Posted: 12/6/2014

If you asked a room full of people -- farmers included -- to name Canada's largest crop, chances are you would get a debate going over whether it is wheat or canola.

And they would both be wrong.

Canada's largest crop, occupying 39 per cent of the farmable land, is forage -- hay and pasture to feed livestock. Wheat and canola are the two most valuable crops farmers produce, but with $5.1 billion of economic activity generated, forage comes in a solid third -- well ahead of corn.

However, despite its sizeable footprint and contribution to the Canadian economy, forage gets lost in the shuffle when it comes to allocating funds for research and development.

It's partly because it does its best work behind the scenes. You could say for every successful cattle farmer in Canada there's a good stand of hay.

And while most people recognize it plays an important role, it gets taken for granted, similar to how society treats a stay-at-home mom. Everyone knows she's doing an important job -- and yet people keep asking her when she's going back to work.

Likewise for forage lands, which are often referred to as "unimproved" or "undeveloped." Those terms ignore the valuable roles those lands play -- economically, by supporting livestock production as well as environmentally by reducing soil erosion, improving water quality, maintaining wildlife habitat and adding to biological diversity.

But it's also because there are no easy way to raise funds for forage research. The structure of the industry is such that a checkoff won't work, because most of the production is never sold through commercial channels. It is either fed on farm or sold producer to producer. Historically, research into improved varieties has been done by the public sector, but government support for that research has been waning since the 1990s.

A 2007 analysis shows publicly funded forage research had declined by $44 million annually during the previous 15 years. That lack of research into new and improved varieties has resulted in forage yields that are stagnant or declining.

So four years ago, the forage seed, grass and hay producers in Canada banded together under the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association to increase the sector's profile and generate more interest in supporting research.

As 80 per cent of Canada's beef production relies on forage as a main feed source, it seems logical cattle producers would be onside. Of the $5.1 billion of economic activity forage contributes to the Canadian economy, it is estimated 53 per cent is captured directly by beef producers.

Yet the Canadian Cattlemen's Association this year declined to continue with the $20,000 contribution it has given the CFGA over the past three years, citing limited budgets. The CCA noted it still provides support for forage through the Beef Cattle Research Council, which is a national industry-led funding agency for beef research.

The CFGA is vowing to soldier on on a much-diminished budget, but its ability to function, let alone attract research dollars, has been compromised. And it has become painfully obvious in recent times that without a national voice, support for forage research will continue to decline in this country.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association decision is hard to rationalize relative to other places the organization has been spending producer checkoff funds lately. So far it's spent $3.25 million on legal fees to challenge the U.S. country-of-origin labelling (COOL) legislation, combined with another $3 million put into lobbying efforts.

Five years into the battle, cattle producers have little to show for these efforts, and there is no end in sight. Last week, the U.S. announced it would be appeal the latest World Trade Organization ruling in Canada's favour.

The CCA's own data show the return on investment on funds used to finance research is 46 to one. Maybe the COOL fight has to continue, but diverting just a few of the dollars now spent on legal fees might provide a better bang for the buck.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2014 B9