By Terry Kowalchuk, Provincial Specialist, Forage Crops, Regina
The Prairie provinces are blessed with almost 85 per cent of the agricultural land in Canada. About a third of this land grows forage. Forage land includes native prairie (sometimes referred to as rangeland), tame hayland and tame pasture. These so-called “marginal lands” are not suitable for annual crops because of physical or climatic limitations and are therefore used for feeding cattle.
Current marketing wisdom holds that cattle are bad for the environment and plant-based protein is the way to save our planet. However, ruminant livestock and the forage sector, particularly in Western Canada, play a key role in preserving biodiversity, reducing soil degradation, and maintaining or improving soil health.
Grasses, legumes and forbes on our rangelands evolved under periodic grazing by bison. Grazing by cattle helps maintain native prairie in its natural state by cycling nutrients and by creating diverse ecological niches for plants and animals. Without grazing, overall plant and animal diversity declines as range health declines.
The same is true for hay and pasture land. The soil on these lands is often sandy with low organic matter content, little soil structure and poor ability to hold moisture. Hay and pasture lands may also have steep topography. When cultivated, these soils are prone to wind and/or water erosion. In both cases, perennial forage and haying or grazing is the best use of this land to prevent soil degradation.
Even producers on lands that are suitable for cropping could benefit from inclusion of forages and cattle in their operations. Forages help break disease cycles and are especially useful for control of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Legumes in forage stands help reduce the need for fertilizer, and many studies have shown that forage in a crop rotation improves soil health by increasing soil organic matter content.
Increasing organic matter helps offset methane production from cattle while improving the physical and biological properties of the soils. When grazing is included, most of the nutrients ingested by ruminants are returned to the land as urine or feces, which are then reused by subsequent crops. Digestion within the rumen helps accelerate residue decomposition and nutrient cycling in soils. Over time, this process enhances microbial dynamics (especially under wet and warm conditions) and increases the accumulation of stable organic materials in soils, making them more resilient to physical and climatic influences.
Plant-based proteins offer a unique opportunity to diversify sources of protein in our diets. However, forage and livestock production systems must continue to be an important component of sustainable prairie agriculture ecosystems in order to maintain biodiversity, reduce soil degradation and improve soil health.