The American Forage and Grassland Council announced the sixth annual National Forage Week on June 21-27 as an effort to raise awareness to the importance and impact of forages.

According to their website: “AFGC is an international organization made up of 22 affiliate councils in the United States with over 2,500 members. Our primary objective is to promote the profitable production and sustainable utilization of quality forage and grasslands and are dedicated to advancing the use of forage as a prime feed resource. Our members represent the academic community, producers, private industry, institutes and foundations. Together, they unite in a common cause to promote and develop the forage industry.”

Forage includes plant material, most often high in fiber, eaten by livestock. The National Forage Week campaign was developed to raise awareness and educate the public about the role of forages in dairy and meat consumption. Consumers are increasingly inquisitive and concerned about their food sources, and AFGC is positioning the organization to better understand consumer concerns and inform consumers about the role of forages and forage production.

Grasses and legumes grazed in pastures and/or consumed as hay, are important forages. Because forages are so diverse and are not consumed by humans, they are often less visible than many other food commodities. As feed for livestock, forages are important to production of a wide range of human foods. According to AFGC, the U.S. consumes 50 billion burgers, 450 million pounds of honey, 3 billion pizzas and 1.5 billion gallons of ice cream, all of which depend on forages in their production.

Almost two-thirds of this country’s agricultural land supports forage, grasslands and grazing lands. Here they contribute to food production and provide several ecosystem goods and services. Increasing and sustaining provision of these goods (for example, wildlife and aesthetics) and services (for example, conserving and protecting soil, water and air resources) usually requires public funding and makes government agencies responsible and accountable for the investments.

An adequate food supply has traditionally been the major expectation from agriculture. Food must also be safe, healthy and appealing, both in appearance and taste. Public interest is now recognizing animal rights, managing livestock waste, improving water quality of streams and lakes, and conserving soil and biodiversity.

Demand for organic products is also increasing. Consumer preference includes “natural” foods that are different from organic foods or those that are identified as “locally produced,” “grass-fed,” “hormone free” or “free-range.” These demands suggest increasing use of pasture and haylands as well as careful use of animal manures in crop rotations for meat and milk production.

Conservation of natural resources will continue to be a national priority. Management procedures such as rotational stocking, nutrient management, harvest management and no-till seeding have emerged from public sector research to improve yield and quality of pastures and hayfields while conserving resources.

Forage plantings are recognized for their capacity to limit erosion, protect surface waters, provide low-cost feed, benefit crop rotations and support biodiversity. Hundreds of grass, legume and forb species are used for pasture and harvested feed. Each species has its own growth form, response to biotic and abiotic stresses, and conservation value. Although the challenges are great, pastures and haylands can be managed to provide economic uses of these landscape positions while providing many ecosystem services that are valued by the public. Enhanced public support will be needed for research, education and incentives for volunteer adoption of needed practices.

As you enjoy a hamburger or some ice cream this week, remember the importance of forages and grasslands in supporting those food products, as well as all the less obvious, but critically important environmental benefits they provide.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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