Forages: It Pays Farmers to be Efficient

Published 11:00 am Tuesday, June 21, 2022

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by Justin Miller/Alabama Extension Service

What in the world are forages? Well, in simple terms, forages are the plants that livestock eat. While simple, the role forages play in contributing to the world’s food supply is vital. This is why forage producers work to ensure that forage and livestock systems are efficient, both environmentally and economically.

The Evolution of Efficiency
Leanne Dillard, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System forage specialist, said when it comes down to it, it quite literally pays farmers to be more efficient.

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“Farmer’s most important resource is their land, so being able to produce more on a smaller amount of land is really important for them to be able to stay in business,” Dillard said.

To remain efficient, forage researchers and producers have looked to increasing the adoption of new technologies over the years.

“Things like GPS have allowed us to be more precise with our fertility and chemical management,” Dillard said. “This has allowed us to reduce our inputs, which is one of the largest costs in forage and livestock production.”

This technology adoption does not stop there. The industry has also increased technology in areas such as plant and livestock breeding. Because of that, producers can be a lot more efficient in getting products to consumers.

“Over the last 40 or 50 years, the new forage varieties we have been able to adapt are able to compete with weeds, so we are able to use less herbicide,” Dillard said. “These varieties are able to grow faster with less input, so we are able to reduce our fertilizer inputs as well. This allows our producers to get a better economic return.”

Sustainable Forage Practices
In most aspects, efficiency in forages is not that complex. All it takes is producers being dedicated in implementing management techniques developed from science-based research.

“There are many things producers in Alabama and across the United States do every day to promote sustainability, not just with forages but of the entire ecosystem in which they are in,” Dillard said.

A practice that farmers commonly use is rotating livestock routinely from one pasture to another. This allows the livestock to better return nutrients to the land, reducing a farmer’s fertilizer inputs. This also allows pasture forages to rest, allowing them to reestablish for future grazing.

“Managing forages correctly increases a producer’s forage production and also decreases weeds, which reduces chemical needs in these systems,” she said. “Many producers also promote wildlife as part of their systems because they are usually at the edge of forests and other wildlife habitats. At the end of the day, there are many ways that forages fit into sustainability of our Alabama ecosystems.”

Developing New Practices
Dillard and other researchers at Auburn University continually conduct forward-thinking experiments to take forage efficiency to the next level. This research helps develop modern practices that farmers can implement into their systems.

“The main research that we are currently focusing on at Auburn is looking at integrating cattle systems into row crop systems,” Dillard said. “This allows us to use land not being used during the winter to put gain on cattle.”

According to Dillard, practices like this integration would allow producers to diversify their income. This not only makes them more efficient, but also more economically and environmentally sustainable.

Additionally, Extension and Auburn researchers are looking into is increasing efficiency through the use of secondary plant metabolites. Dillard said metabolites are compounds naturally found in forages and other plants.

“As we learn more about them, we know that they increase the digestion of the forages for animals, making them more nutrient dense,” Dillard said. “They can also have some environmental impacts, such as reducing methane emissions from cattle.”

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