GHGMP Feature Articles

Manitoba producers learn to make the most of forages

Projects show the all around benefits of producing grass and legumes

Manitoba producers will be encouraged this summer to grow more and improved forage varieties through a series of demonstration projects staged across the province with the support of a federal initiative showcasing the economic and environmental value of including more forages in rotation.

Techniques such as direct seeding forages to establish or rejuvenate perennial grass and legume stands, extensive variety trials, fine tuning fertilizer application rates, and greater use of winter cereals as a forage source, are among the projects being demonstrated in a joint effort involving producer organizations and the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program (GHGMP) for Canadian Agriculture. Other demonstrations will also evaluate nutrient requirements in grains, oilseeds and pulse crops.

"The goal is to demonstrate improved management practices that not only enhance forage production, but also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says Michelle Erb, provincial co-ordinator of the GHGMP. She is also farm and extension manager of the Manitoba Zero Till Research Association (MZTRA) based at the MZTRA farm north of Brandon.

A producer field day of the plots was held in early July, but any farmers looking for specific information on the demonstrations can contact the Manitoba Zero Till Research Association office with specific questions.

Producing more forages and related production practices help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in several ways. Vigorous forage stands have potential to capture and convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in the soil and plant tissue. This creates what is referred to as a "carbon sink".

As well, forages make use of surplus soil nutrients, reducing the risk of excess nitrogen being lost to the environment through a process known as denitrification. And establishing more perennial crops reduces the number of annually cropped acres. That means fewer field hours for tractors and other power equipment and reduced use of fossil fuels that also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

"Increasing forage production has a cumulative affect in reducing greenhouse gas emissions," says Erb. "At the same time forages have an important economic role as a cash crop as well as feed for the livestock industry."

Other GHG-related projects will also look at nutrient requirements and timing in annual crops.

The soils sector of the five-year greenhouse gas mitigation program is administered through the Soil Conservation Council of Canada. Specific demonstration projects in each province are designed by a group of producer, industry and research representatives known as the Taking Charge Team.

Direct seeding

The Woodworth Grazing Club in northwest Manitoba demonstrated a direct seeding drill that can be used to establish or rejuvenate forage stands, says Erb. As many as 30 producers in the region used the John Deere drill for forages.

"The demonstration sites will be included in the club's summer tour as it promotes the benefits of including forages in rotation," says Erb.

Forage management

Also this summer, the Northwest Livestock Foundation will stage a series of workshops and seminars focused on improved forage management practices such as pasture health evaluation, use of rotational grazing to help existing pastures recover, lengthen the grazing season through use of swath grazing, proper silage management and other topics.

The foundation will also organize demonstrations of off-site watering systems, the use of paddocks and cross fencing to facilitate rotational grazing systems, and use of new forage varieties to establish perennial pastures.

"All these tools will be used to educate producers on best management practices to improve forage production and how they reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says Erb.

Variety trials

As part of the 2005 program, the Manitoba Forage Council established dozens of new forage variety trails.

At three test sites across the province, up to 264 plots showcase 66 new varieties including 32 alfalfa varieties, cicer milkvetch and brome grass varieties.

The variety test sites have been established near Arborg, north of Winnipeg, at St. Pierre, south of Winnipeg, and in the Neepawa/Rosebank area, west of Winnipeg.

Winter cereals

Another forage related project includes demonstration of winter cereal crops such as winter wheat, winter triticale and fall rye for use as silage crops. The crops can be direct seeded in the fall and then harvested the following summer as silage, explains Erb.

"The benefits again include the feed value of the silage, potential of the crops to sequester carbon in the soil, and the ability of the crops to make use of surplus nitrogen in the soil so it isn't lost to the environment," she says. The winter cereal demonstrations are also supported by Ducks Unlimited and the Western Agricultural Diversification Association.

Nitrogen application

Two other GHG demonstration projects are looking at nitrogen timing and requirements in different crops.

Fourteen producers in the Beausejour area, located east of Winnipeg, are involved in demonstrations evaluating split nitrogen applications in wheat crops, explains Erb. The project is being co-ordinated through the Agassiz Soil and Crop Improvement Association.

Rather than apply all nitrogen at seeding, part of the overall requirement will be applied as a foliar treatment during the growing season. "Often in high rainfall conditions much of the nitrogen is lost before the crop has a chance to use it," she explains. "The area is capable of producing high yielding wheat but often the protein is missing because the crop doesn't have sufficient nitrogen."

In the demonstration, two-thirds to three-quarters of the nitrogen requirement will be applied at time of seeding and the balance will be applied at the flag leaf stage. Yield and protein data will be collected. The split application plots will be compared to plots receiving the conventional one-shot treatment at seeding.

In separate demonstrations, John Heard, soil fertility specialist with Manitoba Agriculture is looking at nutrient uptake in soybeans, sunflowers and dry beans.

While these row crops, are generally recognized as high input crops, there is also some concern that standard fertilizer rates may be higher than the crops actually require.

As part of the project, soil tests will be made to determine soil nutrient levels. A nutrient uptake curve will be developed to show when and how much nutrients the crops require during the growing season.

"The project will give us better information on crop nutrient requirements and may also show if the timing of fertilizer applications can be changed to better match crop needs," says Erb.

For more information on the Manitoba projects contact Marla Riekman at (204) 725-3939, or for information on the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program visit the SCCC Web site at www.soilcc.ca