Converting crop land to pasture takes planning

CANADA - An increasing number of Saskatchewan farmers are looking at converting their crop land to pasture or forage, with crops such as alfalfa, timothy, brome and various grasses generating a lot of interest.
calendar icon 23 October 2006
clock icon 3 minute read
But according to Andre Bonneau, a Forage Conversion Specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food (SAF), there’s one key ingredient that producers can’t overlook in their efforts. “It’s planning,” he said.

“Generally, we tell people that, if they have the time and want to put in a perennial forage crop, they should prepare at least a year in advance, maybe even two years depending on where they are. That’s mainly to deal with perennial weeds.”

Bonneau added that it may be possible to prepare for the conversion over a shorter timeframe, but the primary factor is weed control. “Depending on the weeds, where you are and what your production practices are, you want to make sure your perennial weeds are taken care of at least by the fall before seeding,” he said. “So, if you’re planning on seeding forages next spring, it should be a priority that your perennial weeds, both your grasses and your broadleaf weeds, are taken care of before freeze-up.”

The emphasis on removing unwanted vegetation in advance is because it becomes increasingly difficult to dispose of it once the forage cover is introduced. “Often there’s a problem with a perennial weed growing in an alfalfa, grass or mixed crop. Perennial weeds are very tough to take out of a perennial forage stand. For example, dandelions are almost impossible to remove from an alfalfa stand,” Bonneau noted.

Bonneau suggested there may be a number of reasons for the growing popularity of converting crop land to pasture or forage, including the reduced input costs that go along with a perennial rather than an annual crop.

“It’s also been shown more and more that perennial forages have a really nice place in a crop rotation, for fertility and weed control. For example, alfalfa fixes a lot of nitrogen in the soil during its lifetime, so when you go into an annual crop after the alfalfa, it will be taking up a lot of that nitrogen,” he added.

“But I think, for the most part, it’s just a general shift in many areas of the province towards more livestock-based production and away from an annual cropping system. There seems to be more attention paid to livestock production right now, and either they’re producing forage for themselves or they’re producing it for their neighbours,” said Bonneau.

There is some assistance available to farmers interested in making a switch to forage. The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) has renewed its Greencover Canada program for one more year, through 2007. The program offers financial assistance for producers wishing to seed environmentally sensitive land to a perennial crop cover. Applications forms can be obtained from the PFRA website (which is presently being updated) or by calling 1-866-844-5620. The application deadline is January 31, 2007, for seeding this coming spring.

Bonneau stated there may also be more indirect help available through the federal-provincial Agricultural Policy Framework (APF). “Once a person goes through the Environmental Farm Plan, they have access to the Farm Stewardship Program through the APF. Basically, it’s money available to help correct any environmental problems the Environmental Farm Plan may have identified,” he explained.

“So if the problem is a riparian area where you need a perennial forage or a perennial species to help control erosion, or if it’s very poor land where wind erosion may be an issue, there may be money available to do that.”

More information about the process of converting crop land to pasture or forage can be found on the SAF website at www.agr.gov.sk.ca , or by calling the SAF Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

According to Bonneau, “It’s been a popular subject for people calling into the centre, with questions ranging from species selection and fertility, all the way up to the economics and trying to plan a good sales strategy for forage crops. So it ranges quite a bit, and we can try to help producers with all those kinds of issues.”

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