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Research into forage stands to increase profitability for ruminant animal producers

Forage agronomist Kathleen Glover is working to improve the quality of forage stands, thereby increasing profitability for ruminant animal producers.
Forage agronomist Kathleen Glover is working to improve the quality of forage stands, thereby increasing profitability for ruminant animal producers. - Kirk Starratt

KENTVILLE, NS - Research aimed at improving forage quality will no doubt give ruminant animal producers something to chew on.

Kathleen Glover of Truro is a forage agronomist working at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Kentville Research and Development Centre, the Nappan Experimental Farm in Amherst and the Dalhousie Agricultural Campus in Truro.

She said forage crops are primarily grown for ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and horses. There has been a long-term, standing forage program at the Nappan Experimental Farm under Yousef Papadopoulous, a forage breeder who has also worked in forage agronomy. Forage agronomy focuses on production practices related to growing forage.

“The idea with the forage agronomy program is to improve forage production specifically in eastern Canada,” Glover said. “Forages are one of the most cost effective ways for our ruminant producers to increase their profitability.”

She said we could grow forages very well in our climate. Some of the grasses in particular like cool, wet weather.

Communicating with Papadopoulous and other scientists, Glover said they want to identify some of the biggest limitations in forage production and find ways to address them. Forages are primarily broken into two groups, grasses and legumes. They complement each other well and are often grown together.

The legumes, such as alfalfa and clover, are grown for the quality they add to the grass feed. They tend to be higher in protein. However, over time, the legume can be killed off for a number of reasons. It’s beneficial to get legumes back into the existing grass stand without having to till everything up and start over. This has considerable environmental and cost advantages.

“Legumes also fix atmospheric nitrogen so they can actually bring nitrogen fertilizer into the soil for the grasses to use as well as their own benefit,” Glover said.

She plans to build on existing research to find means and ways to improve re-establishing a legume into an existing stand. The seeds have to be able to fight through the grass to take root and flourish.

Glover said that if you can produce a forage crop that is high in protein and highly digestible, the ruminant animal would grow faster and gain better. For example, this means more meat or milk being produced from the same unit base of feed.

“That’s why, economically, it’s so important to our farmers to make sure that their forage is of good quality. It’s not just yield, it has to be quality too to maximize profitability,” Glover said.

She became interested in the field of study as a student. She knew much more about cash crops but became intrigued by forages.

“They weren’t receiving the same attention as the other crops were receiving and yet, in my mind, they seemed to be as important,” Glover said.

She learned recently that long-term forage stands that have grown for five years or more establish a huge underground root system. The root system sequesters carbon from the air, which helps mitigate or offset some of the negative impact of raising ruminants in terms of the methane gas produced.

In the 1980’s, the recommended ruminant diet focused on readily digestible carbohydrates that were thought to maximize the energy available to the animal for growth and production. Forages were primarily seen as a necessary fibre component providing for proper rumen fermentation.

Today, high quality forage production is seen as the most cost effective way to increase profitability for the ruminant animal industry.

Secondary research avenue

There was some previous research conducted at the Nappan Experimental Farm by Yousef Papadopoulous and John Duynisveld on different legume and grass mixtures. It was found that animal productivity was higher on certain mixtures and this did not appear to be directly related to yield and traditional quality measures. Glover said the question is why are certain mixtures better.

Glover has a background in molecular nutrition and said certain plants must make metabolites that convey some kind of greater advantage. Studying at the molecular level what compounds are having these effects and why is a second avenue of her research that will build on that previous work.

“I think we need to understand secondary metabolites of plants better,” Glover said. “Secondary metabolites are minor constituents of plants when you consider their amounts but they seem to have importance.”

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