Forage breeding faces funding challenges

Government has cut back, private companies are not keen on crops that don’t need to be reseeded every year, and you can’t check off sales to farmers’ own livestock

Forages are Canada’s biggest crop but you wouldn’t know it because of the few resources that go into breeding them. You’d think that, given its size, forage would be a giant in the world of plant breeding. Unfortunately, it’s more of a midget.

Canada has only four major publicly funded programs for breeding tame forages, along with two smaller programs for native grasses. Research funding has been static for the last 10 years except for some from the Beef Cattle Research Council. It’s estimated that only about one-third as much forage research is being done nationally as in the 1980s. Research today concentrates on major species such as alfalfa, clover and grasses because there aren’t enough breeders to cover all the others.

“Considering the importance of the crop, that is a small breeding effort, especially when you consider the number of species to be worked on,” says Bruce Coulman, a University of Saskatchewan forage breeder who works on dryland grasses such as brome and wheatgrass.

Similar in the U.S.

In the U.S., the pattern is similar, despite more private companies involved in forage research. Mike Peterson, the global traits lead for Forage Genetics International in Janesville, Wisconsin, says variety evaluation is “way less” than it was 10 or 15 years ago. He recalls that an alfalfa-breeding group meeting in the U.S. used to draw 300 people. Now only about 60 attend.

“It’s crazy. It’s just eroding,” Peterson says. “We have almost as many acres of alfalfa and we’re just not doing the research that we used to.”

Peterson stresses the work that is being done is cutting edge and high quality. It’s just that the talent pool is so thin.

“The quality of the work has never been higher. There’s just not enough of it.”

Another problem is a lack of uptake for the research that is being done.

“The work that our breeders are doing is certainly very valuable. But we also don’t have a huge uptake from industry to use a lot of these new varieties,” says Cedric MacLeod, executive director of the Canadian Forage & Grassland Association.

“There is some reluctance by growers to adopt the newest technology. It’s hard for the public purse and private industry to justify the expense that goes along with breeding new varieties because the return on investment is a difficult case to make.”

No checkoff revenue

The nature of forages can make it difficult for breeders to target traits to select for. Because most forage is fed by farmers to their own cattle, their production tends to fly below the radar. Even basic data is sometimes lacking. Yields and value often have to be estimated because they are not actually documented, as they are for grains and oilseeds.

“The variability in itself makes it hard for us to get a handle on what really needs to be done,” MacLeod says. “And it makes it difficult for the breeders to pinpoint what it is they should be breeding for.”

Surya Acharya, an AAFC forage breeder at Lethbridge, Alberta, thinks breeding programs in the past placed too much emphasis on yields and not enough on quality. Part of the reason may be that beef producers, who use the bulk of forages, do not require the same high-quality forage that dairy farmers do. Acharya believes higher quality would give forages a market advantage for exporters

Enhanced management

Most in the industry agree forage producers need to take management to a higher level, given the escalating cost of farmland. Peterson does some work near Kitchener, Ontario where land can cost up to $20,000 an acre, making it hard for forages to compete with corn and soybeans.

“You really need to pretty much pull an annual grain crop off that land to make it pay. Or you need 10 tons of alfalfa per year.”

But Acharya believes there are ways for forages to be competitive through enhanced management. One way would be to stop growing forages as a monoculture in grazing situations. Acharya is currently working on sainfoin, a forage legume which can be grown in a mixed stand with alfalfa. Not only does this mixture reduce bloat, it produces greater yields with a higher quality.

“We should be working in a more innovative way to produce more from a unit area without only concentrating on genetic yield increases,” Acharya says.

This article first appeared in the “Forage & Grassland Guide” in the March 1, 2016 issue of Country Guide

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