SYRIA, Va. — What’s the way to tell true forage farmers? Watch what they do when they step onto a new farm, said Chad Hale, president of the American Forage and Grassland Council or AFGC. They don’t look at the animals grazing in the pasture. The first thing they do is look down at their feet - at the grass - where the real action goes on.
At the second annual AFGC National Tour, held May 22-24 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Madison County, Va., grass-oriented farmers had the opportunity to see examples of innovative and successful forage management on a number of local farms.
A major emphasis of the council is producer sustainability, as defined in the economic, environmental and social sense.
“If you’re not making money, it’s not sustainable,” said Carl Stafford, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent based in Culpeper County and a board member of the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council (the AFGC is made up of many such state-specific organizations).
Stops on the tour, for which about 100 producers signed up, included several different farms in Madison, Orange and Rappahannock counties. Each visit focused on ways that farmers in Virginia’s Piedmont region have demonstrated profitable and therefore sustainable forage management. Stafford noted that each farm requires a custom approach and that “sustainable” on one farm doesn’t necessarily mean the same on another. For some, he said, variable-rate fertility management might be the key. For others, year-round grazing is the way to go. And on some others, conservation easements might be a good option.
One thing that generally does holds true from farm to farm is better forage management means higher profitability.
Though it’s been well established that growing your own forage generally allows substantial savings on feed costs, Hale noted that forage management is generally under-emphasized and overlooked when it comes to American agriculture. While the various forage species combined amount to the largest crop grown in the country, hay sales are about the only way any forage crop registers as a commodity. Still, forage is hugely important to the livestock industry.
While no checkoff dollars are collected to fund any organization to promote the industry, the AFGC has worked to do just that since 1946.
Many of the forage farmers who showed up for the tour were already aware of the pros and cons of different forage species: fescue is hardy but has endophyte issues; orchardgrass is great for livestock performance but not as resilient in extreme heat or cold; bromegrass makes a fantastic forage but doesn’t regrow quickly after a first cutting or grazing, etc.
And just prior to the farm tour, several dozen university researchers, Extension agents and private industry members gathered for a cool-season grass workshop to learn more about forage species’ physiology behind these characteristics. The workshop, led by researchers from universities across the country, included technical discussions of how the photosynthetic process plays out differently in various plant species, how the optimal leaf area index varies from species to species, and how different carbohydrate storage strategies determine how quickly and vigorously certain forages will recover from grazing or cutting.
The goal of the pre-tour seminar was to give industry and Extension personnel who interact with producers a better understanding of the science behind forage management recommendations.