Growings On: The importance of forages

Roger Gates

In an effort to raise awareness about the importance and impact of forages, the American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC) recently announced it is excited to celebrate the fifth annual National Forage Week June 16-22. AFGC is an organization comprised of farmers, agricultural industry representatives, researchers and advisers. The organization’s tagline is “the leader and voice of economically and environmentally sound forage-focused agriculture.” Forage includes plant material, most often high in fiber, eaten by livestock.

Grasses and legumes grazed in pastures and hay conserved for winter-feeding 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 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.

Forages are primarily perennial grasses and forbs, which enhance the environment by adding nutrients to the soil and protect it from soil erosion. Perennial plants, such as forages, provide important wildlife habitat.

Slightly fewer than 2% of the total U.S. population lives on a farm, making it more difficult for the public to relate to farming and the accompanying benefits and challenges. As the public moves further away from its agrarian heritage and the rural lifestyle, AFGC strives to bring farming and forages into greater public awareness with National Forage Week. There are 528 million acres of forage in the U.S. That's more than three times the size of Texas

The National Forage Week campaign raises awareness and educates 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.

Gary Bates, director of the Beef and Forage Center at the University of Tennessee, says “We often take forage crops for granted. We look at a beautiful pasture and see the grazing livestock and not the forage. The most impactful plants in the world are right under our feet. Many people do not realize how much forage plants impact their lives. From meat and dairy all the way to ornamental grasses, forages touch most people’s lives in some fashion.”

Bates adds: “Forage crops are some of the most flexible crops in the world. They can be used for their beauty in gardens, as food for livestock or as tools to save our environment. Without forages our world would be dramatically different.”

Forages support most directly the production of grazing livestock, beef and dairy cattle, sheep and goats. Less obvious, but at least as vital, are the contributions forages make to environmental health. Deep-rooted perennial grasses and forbs protect soil by providing stable permanent cover. Water quality is also protected where perennial forages are the primary land use. Well-managed forages and grasslands limit soil erosion and stabilize banks, limiting the contamination of lakes, rivers and streams.

Pollinator insects are receiving recent attention because of population declines and the vital contributions they provide for agriculture and food production. The blossoms of several forage plants, notably alfalfa and several clovers, provide excellent habitat for pollinators.

Current public and private conservation efforts support both preservation of existing grassland and establishment of additional acres. Wildlife and water will be immediate beneficiaries, but society will receive long-term benefits.

Forage production is very important in the agriculture of northwest Georgia. According to the Census of Agriculture, 197 Whitfield County farms produced more than 14,000 tons of forage on about 8,000 acres. In addition, more than 17,000 acres were dedicated to pasture for livestock grazing, including about 2,700 acres of woodland.

As you enjoy a hamburger or ice cream this week, remember the importance of forages and grasslands in supporting those food products, as well as all the less obvious 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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