Have you ever stopped to think about how important forage crops are to our state and our nation? It is probable that most folks have not, yet a good case can be made to the effect that forage crops are among our most valuable national resources.
Do you detect an apparent contradiction here? How could something be important but generally not recognized as such? The answer is that the contributions of forage crops are many and varied and that many of these contributions are indirect and more difficult to recognize than those of many other commodities or products.
First, forage crops are important because they provide most of the nutrition for domestic grazing animals. It has been estimated that forages provide 63 percent of the feed units consumed by dairy cattle, 84 percent of those for beef cattle and 90 percent of those consumed by sheep and goats. The significance of this for all Americans (not just livestock producers) is evident when we consider that close to one-third of the food that the average American consumes per year is of ruminant animal origin. Since forages are the primary source of nutrition for the animals from which these animal products come, it is clear that no other commodity even comes close to forages as a contributor to the human diet, even though the contribution forages make is indirect.
Of course, forages also contribute to the diets of other domestic animals as well. Swine, horses and even poultry consume substantial quantities of forage on some farms. One can also add to this the forage consumption of non-domestic animals such as deer and rabbits, which may or may not have the permission and approval of the landowner (thousands of acres of forage crops are planted specifically for wild animals each year). Forage crops also provide cover for many types of small animals and birds. These include, but are certainly not limited to, many game species.
Another major contribution of forage crops is their value in protecting the land from wind and water erosion. Yet another is the huge amount of income generated for American farmers through seed production of many different types of forage crops. In addition, forage crops are an important source of nectar and pollen for the bee industry, and the aesthetic contribution of attractive fields of forage crops is of inestimable value, but is certainly worth a great deal to many people.
Do you know that grazing lands occupy over half the agricultural land area in the United States, and for that matter, in the world? In Alabama, for example, we have over four million acres devoted to the production of pasture, hay, and silage. This is more open land than all other agronomic and horticultural crops combined!
Is it possible that a commodity that contributes so much at present could contribute even more than it now does? The answer, of course, is that it certainly is possible. A large percentage of the land that is currently devoted to forage production could be much more productive if it was managed more intensively. Furthermore, there are millions of acres in the USA, especially in the Southeast, that are currently unused or producing little of value, but that would make excellent pasture or hay land with proper management.
In conclusion, it can be correctly stated that while forage crops are highly important at present, economically and otherwise, their true potential has not come close to being fully realized. If a long range improvement in the economics of grazing livestock production or forage production (perhaps forage biomass production for energy production) was coupled with a general increase in management of grazing lands, the economic contribution of forage crops could be absolutely phenomenal! Furthermore, if this happened, states such as Alabama in which forages can be economically produced over a large portion of the year, would particularly stand to benefit.
Don Ball is an Extension Forage Crop Agronomist with Auburn University.