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Choosing Forage Varieties Without Getting Lost In The Weeds

Henry Ford famously said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it’s black.” Today’s vehicles have endless options in terms of color, body style, engine, drivetrain and everything else you can imagine. Some people revel in these endless options, enjoy mixing and matching, and “building” exactly what they want. Some of us are put off by all the extra hassle it takes just for the pleasure of dropping a king’s ransom on a new vehicle, and decide we’ve probably got a few more years and a few more thousand miles before the wheels fall off whatever we’re currently driving.

Marketers call that phenomenon “choice paralysis.” It can cause enormous problems for producers wanting to reseed tame perennial pastures and hayfields.

Forage production typically declines as tame pastures get older, especially if moisture, fertility or grazing management are limiting. Over time, legumes die out and less desirable species like bluegrass, dandelions and thistles increase. Eventually, it no longer resembles the “alfalfa-grass” mix that was originally seeded.

But reseeding forages is costly and can be risky, and it’s not always easy to know what forages or varieties to seed next. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency no longer requires experimental yield, quality or agronomic data before new forage varieties are registered. Often, the only information available is data from the breeder or seed company, based on a limited number of sites, and comparing to a historical “control” variety that may not be the industry standard.

How are you supposed to know what to seed? You might be tempted to buy an off-the-shelf forage seed mix, hoping that some of the seed in the blend will germinate, establish and grow where you need it to. But off-the-shelf mixes weren’t designed to meet your precise needs – they were designed with the “average” operation in mind, to meet a price point. If that retail one-size-fits-all doesn’t fit the demands of your situation, then germination, emergence and establishment may suffer and leave you back at square one, and dollars behind.

Sorting out what forage species and blends might work for your situation is difficult. It’ll depend on soil zone, ecoregion, soil texture, soil pH and salinity conditions. It’ll depend on what you want to use it for (e.g., hay, pasture or both). Head-to-head comparisons of different forage varieties can be hard to find, and they’re often very site-specific. Recommended seeding rates will vary because different forage species often have different seed sizes. Seeding rates will also vary depending on whether you’re seeding into an existing stand (and how – e.g., frost seeding vs. sod seeding) or whether you’re starting a whole new stand on bare soil. What weeds are you dealing with and what’s the best strategy to deal with them in a mixed stand?

The answers to all these questions (and more) are available. But if you need to find each answer, figure out which answers are credible and relevant to your soil type, landscape and climate, and piece them all together by yourself… that’s a LOT of work! It might be easier to just leave that old pasture or hay stand alone and complain about the yields.

The good news is that solutions to this challenge exist. Tools like the “Saskatchewan Dryland Forage Species Selection Tool” (early 2000s) and the “Peace Forage Tool” (2014) were developed to help producers make an informed choice about which perennial forage species were suitable for their specific combination of soil type, salinity conditions and production and management systems in Saskatchewan and B.C. These tools were well-received but didn’t help producers elsewhere in Western Canada.

In 2018, the BCRC funded a project led by the Saskatchewan Forage Council to combine the existing Saskatchewan and BC tools, expand them to include additional forage varieties suited to more regions and apply to soil and climate conditions across Western Canada, and offer it as on online tool. The Forage U-Pick tool was launched in 2020. It was also well-received. But it didn’t cover the needs of producers in Central and Atlantic Canada.

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