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Forage research important, needed

Jan. 31, 2013 | 0 comments

During its recent annual meeting in Wisconsin Dells, the Midwest Forage Association identified research needs for alfalfa and forages - an area where an important crop falls far behind others like corn and soybeans.

The association is "always looking for more support," said Mike Rankin, the crops and soil agent in Fond du Lac County who is also vice president of the association. "If they get it, all of that would be able to go to research."

The value of forage crops on the landscape isn't matched by the amount of research that is done on crops that are used for forage, he said.

Beth Nelson, president of MFA, noted there is no check-off for hay or forage, which means there is no built-in fund for research into agronomic practices and other factors that are important to forage growers.

Her group had a record $20,926 that went into their research budget, which doubled the previous amount the association was able to devote to research proposals. The added funding was made possible by a $10,000 donation from Monsanto, all of which went into the research fund, she said.

The association recognized that support by giving Doug Rushing of Monsanto its Outstanding Service Award. When his company gave the money to MFA there were no ties on it, Nelson said, but the group decided it should be devoted to alfalfa research since that is the crop that Monsanto is involved in.

During a research summit prior to the annual meeting, members of MFA set research priorities for the coming year and outlined them for the members at the annual meeting. The research priorities were broken down into hay, dairy, beef, grazing, silage and equine needs.

Some of the short-term research needs for hay included a field survey to determine reasons for alfalfa stand loss, achieving sustainable high-yield, high-quality forage production including fertility, harvest management, managed traffic and on-farm whole-field yield measurements.

Others included revisiting the thresholds for pest management given the higher value of hay crops and foliar feeding of alfalfa versus broadcasting fertilizer.

Long-term hay research needs included developing new value-added uses and products to expand markets; increasing yield and quality with breeding; long-term variety testing of forages and testing ways to speed hay drying.

In an ag-policy related item, members said research needs to quantify the value of forages in rotation with row crops, especially corn. Government-subsidized crop insurance over-subsidizes program crops compared to hay crops, they said.


The MFA is affiliated with the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance for the purposes of national policy issues and political work in Washington, DC.

Most lawmakers, they find, have "heard of alfalfa" but when they hear "forage" most of them think of" 4-H," Nelson said. So the group faces an uphill battle with policymakers.

When Nelson compared the number of U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Research Service (ARS) projects devoted to forages it is "dismal" compared to the money allocated and the number of projects for program crops like corn.

That's despite the fact that forage is the third most valuable field crop in the United States, Nelson said. "Forages are a very valuable crop but there's very little recognition of it."

There has been language in the farm bill to fund research since 2008 for forage research "and we still don't have the money," she added.

Nelson said that NAFA lobbyists are concerned about the potential for hay and forage crops to be hurt significantly by proposals that might be included in a new farm bill this year, linking a new safety net to the planting of program crops. And alfalfa isn't a program crop.

"We're not sure we want alfalfa to be a program crop," she said, adding that there is concern that lenders may force growers to pick a program crop as a condition of a farm loan.

"It's an important thing to pay attention to."

A current alfalfa and forage insurance program, she said, is based on unrealistic yield expectations. A farmer in the meeting commented that it just doesn't pay to be part of that program and those in it are probably being told to do so by their banker.

One of the problems with that program is that there is no pricing strategy for the crop because it isn't traded on any kind of an exchange or public market, which makes it difficult to substantiate losses.


The largest livestock sector for forages, says Nelson, is dairy and the top short-term research needs identified by MFA for dairy include fall harvest management - including the ability and variation of different alfalfa strains to withstand early fall cut; what losses farmers can expect if they make a late fall cut; when the greatest chance for winter kill exists; and fertilizer interaction with cutting management.

The group also identified weed control in alfalfa as a priority including establishment and subsequent production management of "Roundup Ready" alfalfa; companion crop versus chemical control in establishing a crop.

Also identified in the dairy category was the need for improvements in the ability to measure digestibility of NDF (neutral detergent fiber) in forages and research into how much genetic variation there is in NDF digestibility or relative feed quality between varieties.

Long-term needs for dairy forage research included projects looking at low-lignin alfalfa with fewer cuttings; increasing alfalfa yields and improving alfalfa protein utilization.


Top research needs identified for the beef sector included: extension of the grazing season and rotational grazing via double cropping systems; drought management strategies; a comparison of the economics of different feeding systems like chopping, baleage, baling dry hay; research into the use of annuals like sorghum-sudan grass and Italian ryegrass with late-seeded corn.

At the top of the grazing research list was pasture yield response to macro and micro nutrients, especially boron and sulfur; developing tools for grazers to use for enterprise analysis as a decision-making tool that would allow producers to compare and evaluate the economic benefits of various enterprises on the land.

Other grazing priorities included projects on mob or high-intensity grazing; identifying ideal species for different soil types; determining how late-fall grazing affects different species; a survey of how farmers are using grazing systems; and drought management of grazing.

The equine portion of the hay market has potential to be lucrative, said Nelson, but the organization didn't fund any projects last year.

Top research needs identified by MFA for that market included determining what nutrients are actually being consumed by the horse in both a pasture and hay setting; nutritional value of pasture hay and forage species.

Other research needs included: palatability of various pasture plants and dried forages; optimal hay feeding systems; optimum grass mixtures for a productive pasture; noxious weeds and poisonous plant identification and control in pastures and hay fields; pasture best management practices and rotational grazing; grass mixtures or species seeded with alfalfa for hay and use of proprionic acid in hay production for horses.

Nelson said that MFA would be issuing requests for proposals for various research projects soon.

For more information contact MFA at 651-484-3888 or mfa@midwestforage.org.

The annual meeting for MFA was part of a three-group symposium Jan. 21-23 in Wisconsin Dells that also included the Wisconsin Custom Operators, Inc. and the Professional Nutrient Applicators Association of Wisconsin.

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