Forage testing program takes shape in Saskatchewan

Plans to introduce a new province-wide forage testing program in Saskatchewan are proceeding as planned, according to government officials who attended a recent forage industry field day near Saskatoon.

Terry Kowalchuk, provincial forage specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, said work is continuing in hopes that demonstration sites will be established and plots seeded by next spring.

If that happens, the first data from the testing program would likely be available in 2018.

“It’s really about allowing producers to understand what the performance of commercially available forage varieties is in their region,” said Kowalchuk, who is spearheading efforts to get the testing program off the ground.

“I think this is very important information for the forage sector.… Forage is the foundation of the beef industry and the livestock industry in this province so understanding what varieties and what species to put in is very important for producers … and for the province.”

Discussions about setting up a province-wide testing program started a few years ago.

In 2014, the Saskatchewan Advisory Council of Forage Crops identified the lack of a co-ordinated testing program as a critical gap in provincial programming.

Efforts to establish a program began in earnest last year. Since then, Kowalchuk and other industry officials have developed a model, contacted forage seed companies and others that might be interested in participating and hammered out preliminary budget numbers.

Kowalchuk said annual funding of $64,000 would be needed to run a program with core demonstration sites initially located at Melfort, Saskatoon, Swift Current, Outlook and possibly Scott.

The program would test registered forage varieties that are already commercially available, but publicly funded breeding programs could also use it to do comparative tests on promising forage lines that are in development and have yet to be registered.

The program would be an alternative to the Western Forage Testing System, which for all intents and purposes ceased operations a few years ago.

Funding details for the proposed new program have yet to be finalized, but Kowalchuk said funding and in-kind support are likely to come from a variety of sources, including the provincial and federal governments, forage seed companies and industry associations such as the Saskatchewan Forage Council and the Saskatchewan Forage Seed Development Commission.

The forage council would likely play a key role in co-ordinating and administering the program.

Kowalchuk said the success of the program will hinge on industry support.

It will be critically important that forage seed companies buy into the program and submit their varieties for head-to-head testing.

Organizers are hoping that seed companies will commit to the program and submit varietal entries by October of this year for seeding next spring.

“It really comes down to dollars and cents as to how much they’re willing to put forward,” Kowalchuk said.

“My feeling is that if we can just get enough support to get things started, then really it will take on a life of its own … and the result and benefits will speak for themselves.”

Interest among industry partners appears to be in place.

“These are perennial crops that cost a fair bit of money to put in and usually once they’re established, they’re in for anywhere from five to 10 to even 15 years, so the decisions that producers are making with respect to the variety or even the mixture that they’re using is very important.”

Leanna Rousell, executive director of the forage council, said a provincial testing program would benefit producers.

The next steps are to confirm support from the two levels of government and get assurances from forage seed companies that they would participate in the program.

“Right now, we’re waiting to hear from industry to see how much funding they have available to … put forward, and we also need to confirm with government that they would have funding for the project,” Rousell said. “This is something that producers have been asking for. They want information on varieties that do well in their local areas.”

A similar program was established in Alberta earlier this year with the first harvest of data from that program expected next year.

Ideally, data from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba could be combined to provide a comprehensive prairie-wide data set for growers and seed companies to use, she said.

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