Declining hay yields challenge herd growth

Researcher says producers not using enough fertilizer on hayfields and pastures, partly due to higher nutrient prices

Compared to corn and wheat, alfalfa yields have not made much progress over the years, says an Agriculture Canada researcher.

There has been a long-term hay yield decline from Quebec to British Columbia. During a 30-year period average annual hay yields in Saskatchewan decreased from about of 3.5 tonnes per acre to 2.5 tonnes per acre, said forage specialist Vern Baron.

Tame and seeded pastures in Alberta and Saskatchewan decreased by about one million acres between 2011-16.

Alfalfa and alfalfa mixture hay fields have dropped about two million acres, almost all in the parkland regions of the prairie provinces.

“If you want to increase the cow herd, the forage supply is not there,” he said.

Improved genetics combined with better management could help identify new plant types that can thrive and make up for the shortfall, he said at the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association conference in Calgary Nov. 14-15.

“You can do anything with management and it is way cheaper. Frankly, we tend to work in the areas where most resources are devoted. In a short period of time we can see big advances in grazing management and that is good. But if we are really interested in long-term improvement we have to put a lot of effort into improved genetics,” Baron said.

Producers are also facing the new challenge of climate change, less precipitation and higher temperatures. Increasing temperatures are negatively correlated to yield.

On the management side, producers are not using enough fertilizer on hayfields and pastures, partly because of higher nutrient prices.

“If producers aren’t using nitrogen, then there isn’t enough soil nitrogen in those stands to support higher rates of growth,” he said.

The average age of a pasture is seven years across Canada has increased and producers are reluctant to rejuvenate pastures because of costs and other reasons.

“The species composition of a 10-year stand is not going to be the species composition that you planted in year one and two,” he said.

Species composition changes over time and that can affect yields and grazing capacity. On the Prairies, a significant amount of stands have reverted to Kentucky bluegrass, quack grass and brome grass and ryegrass.

Hardy and higher yielding varieties are needed but development is expensive and slow. It could take 15 to 20 years to release a new, improved variety. In that time, the market and the physical environment for the new variety might have changed from the time the first cross was made.

Breeders are looking for yield improvement, better nutritional value, disease and insect resistance. Regional differences may dictate what is accomplished because insects and disease vary. Some regions may require more winter hardiness, especially in central and northern parts of Western Canada.

Crops like alfalfa are also unique. The plant never achieves full yield potential because it is grazed and cut throughout the season.

Winterkill in alfalfa stands is an ongoing issue.

Research at Lacombe, Alta., and Quebec is looking at winter hardiness that maintains a decent yield. They want plants that do not go dormant too early in the season so there is adequate regrowth for another cut. So far they know yields decrease the more winter hardy the plant. But those with less dormancy tend to survive less over the winter.

They also know dormancy increases earlier in the fall as latitude increases.

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