Native Prairie Appreciation week is underway in Canada, running from June 19 to 25. Part of the focus this year is how native forages can be a boon to cattle producers and the environment.
While most cattle producers in the prairies rely on an introduced species of forage plants, there is budding interest around using native species — the same species that sustained populations of bison who survived on the prairies for thousands of years.
Native forage on the prairies was replaced by cereal production largely due to settlers from Europe who came over in the 19th century, whose grazing practices were different from those of already established local farmers. World War One ushered in a huge demand for cereal grains due to reduced production in war-torn Europe. This led to an increased shift from range land to annual grain production, resulting in a loss of perennial ground cover and a reduction of carbon stocks in soil.
Another unintended side effect of increased cereal production was an increase in tillage as well as a loss of soil structure as native perennial forages and their deep root systems were replaced. This ultimately contributed to the huge dust storms of the 1930s.
Dr. Sean Asselin, a perennial forage breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)’s Swift Current Research and Development Centre, is passionate about the groundbreaking work he and his team are doing with native forage plans and how it can help farmers.
Asselin, who is originally from Manitoba and joined the AAFC’s Swift Current location just before the pandemic, has a PhD in plant breeding and genetics and a Masters degree in plant science. He develops native plant populations and seed sources through a mix of conventional breeding methods and more advanced phenomics. This involves collecting native plant materials from various sources such as wild collections and evaluating them under real growing conditions, making selections for different traits based on how well the plants perform.
“We’ve done work on improving biomass production…and seed production. A really big focus of this work with native species is identifying traits that, while they may have been useful from an evolutionary standpoint, make it really challenging to work with the species from a production standpoint,” Asselin says.
Asselin and his team are moving towards getting good establishment traits on the native forages so that they’re more reliable and less risky for producers to use. Part of this includes using something called hyper-spectral imaging technology, which is a quick way of scanning seeds. Predictive models can then be developed based on this imaging data.
Plant breeding is both a science and an art, where judgements must be made based on many factors. One of the things Asselin focuses on is trying to make sure that the materials he works with are adapted for specific growing regions.
“That really is a critical thing,” he explains. “Sometimes you can have a plant that may be native to Saskatchewan, Alberta and Mantioba, but if you get a seed source that’s too far away from where it’s intended to be used, you can start to run into adaptation issues.”
The major benefit of using native forages is biodiversity. Asselin and his team try to push populations in the right direction while maintaining genetic diversity. A lack of diversity can lead to a lack of resilience in foraging land when inclement weather or pest issues come up. Different plant species have different characteristics, and that gives them different abilities to withstand different stressors. At the same time, different species are contributing in different ways to the environment.
The intention of these natural types of synergy systems is to have different species reach peak quality and biomass at different times of the season. These regenerating systems mean, potentially, that producers don’t have to do as much nitrogen and phosphorus dumping on their range.
Asselin is hopeful that producers will consider introducing native forages into their systems, and says his industry is trying to make the materials realistic and reliable for producers to use. There is a demand for native plant materials, particularly in rangeland situations. Not all native seeds are expensive and difficult to establish, so it’s a matter of finding suitable ones for each environment.
Lydia Carpenter owns Luna Field Farm, along with her husband Wian Prinsloo. The farm, located south of Belmont, produces grass fed beef and pastured pork. Their mission is to use ecologically sound grazing and livestock management practices to produce high quality pasture raised and grass fed meats. Their animals are moved through various pasture stands and aren’t returned to an area until it’s seen an improvement in pastureland, which is determined by assessing the rate of regrowth, plant density and increased diversity. In the winter months, their animals are fed using a bale grazing technique, with hay bales placed out on their pasture. They use a mixture of perennial and annual pasture forages, hay and minerals to feed their animals.
Carpenter agrees that biodiversity is essential for the health of the animals she and her husband raise and the environment. Luna Field Farm uses a mix of imported forage, such as Kentucky bluegrass, and native forage. According to Carpenter, both are important for the success of their operation.
With a clear focus on carbon sequestration, ecosystem services and regenerative technology being seen in the industry, it’s likely more and more producers will become open to — or at least interested in — introducing native forages into their pastureland.
>> Miranda Leybourne
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun