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Don't cut the Grass Roots

Forages are the future for agriculture


by Ralph C. Martin


Agriculture Canada continues to promote sustainable agriculture as a priority, meanwhile cutting budgets for forage research by 50%. Sustainable agriculture cannot, however, be separated from the many benefits derived from growing forages, the most pronounced being soil conservation. Forages consist of diverse species, with diverse adaptations and diverse applications, and frequently are not marketed directly; there remains a lot of work to be done in order to fulfill the potential of these plants. Partnerships with industry are being touted as a way to fill the gap, but such ventures are usually focused with precise, short-term, monetary objectives. New opportunities, such as using forages for biofuels, or fibre crops, should also be researched and industry could have a role to play in these specific, previously under-funded areas.


Governments should ensure that forage research in all areas of Canada is fully funded because forages are the biological infrastructure of agriculture. The public investment in roads maintains the conditions for trade and business. Similarly, public investment in forage research will maintain the fundamental resource of agriculture - the soil. In particular, government funding of forage plant breeding programs is essential to maintain because private industry shows little interest in this area as it focuses on annually seeded crops. If forage breeding programs are abandoned, forage crops will eventually lose their competitive advantage in livestock feeding programs. The result will be that marginal farming areas, suited to forage crops, will go out of production and increased soil degradation will occur on the remaining farmland base as production demands intensify agricultural practices.


Annual soil losses due to erosion can be reduced to almost zero with continuous forage cover, and certainly much less than under continuous annual row cropping systems. As well, cover cropping with a legume such as clover, reduces: 1) the need for N fertilizer, which is increasing in cost, is non renewable and is a source of pollution; 2) the amount of cultivation required to establish a crop; 3) the resistance of compacted soil to root penetration by row crops; and 4) the amount of herbicide required to control weeds. All of these factors can contribute to a more sustainable agriculture, with less potential for pollution of watersheds and ground water. In the long term, economic yields could be higher than under conventional methods which contribute to continuing soil degradation.


Future generations will ask us why we didn't invest in their biological infrastructure? Today's generation should ask how sustainable agriculture can be a priority when support for long-term forage research is being reduced?


Dr. Ralph C. Martin is with the Plant Science Department at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro, N.S. and is a board member of REAP-Canada.



Pull Quote:

"The public investment in roads maintains the conditions for trade and business. Similarly, public investment in forage research will maintain the fundamental resource of agriculture - the soil."

Copyright 1995 REAP Canada

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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