The Decline of Forage Quality

February 27, 2020

Very few people are aware that today’s forages grown on our lands are not the same quality as those grown 20 or 30 years ago. When I first started in the seed and nutrition world, it was typical to have clovers and alfalfas testing around 1.50% calcium. Today many of our legumes are testing around 1.1-1.2%. That is a decline of 20-25%. During this same time forage magnesium and sulfur levels have also dropped in relatively the same percentages. There are 3 essential nutrients for animals. These nutrients affect water transportation, nervous system function, protein conversion and more.

 

Why is this? We started seeing soil sulfur levels drop once we implemented tighter regulations on the power plants. There was good and bad with that. In an effort to reduce “acid rain” the one negative of that is the decline of soil sulfur levels. A side note, sulfur is not acidic, so the term acid rain was poorly chosen. We also started seeing a decline in land stewardship, conservation practices and sustainable farming. We saw an escalation of intensive use practices where less emphasis was put on maintaining soil health. We saw less importance put on maintaining soil pH. We have seen a ramping up or use of insecticides and herbicides, many of which are harmful to all living organisms in the soil. Many of these organisms are essential for soil structure, soil tilth and efficient uptake of nutrients by the plants.

 

When our seeds are planted in a depleted soil, how can the plants bring in nutrients? Any nutrient depleted in the soil will typically be low in the plant. Even if there are enough of some of the major minerals in the soil an imbalance of other nutrients can reduce efficient uptake. There are also antagonists in the soil. It’s all about balance. If you do not have a pH range of 6.0-7.0, you will not see effective uptake of nutrients. You also can have a pH range of 6.5 and yet still have poor nutrient uptake by plants if your soils are not “alive”.

There are easy fixes to the problems.

  1. Maintain pH balance by using a fast-acting calcium source each year.

  2. Use sulfur in the form of gypsum or ammonium sulfate.

  3. Use better sources of lime when available.

  4. Rebalance your soils so you’re not in excess in p and k but also in the acceptable ranges of each.

  5. Reduce the amount of nitrogen you need to put down each year by planting nitrogen fixating legumes the previous crop.

  6. Feed the soil with growth promoters, microorganism food and carbon sources.

  7. Work the ground less.

  8. Aerate the soil when compacted. Soil can be compacted by equipment, water or poor cultural practices.

  9. Use liquid starters and foliar plant foods.

  10. Establish crop rotations to “benefit” the next year’s crops.

I have had a client raise his forage calcium levels by 20% within one cropping year by applying ammonium sulfate to the fields along with a fast-acting calcium. Soil health can be manipulated relatively fast. I do however say that a good goal would be 3 years to get your soils rebalanced and back alive.

 

The result for those in the wildlife community would be higher plant calcium. Calcium is the 2nd most essential nutrient for antler development and the most essential nutrient needed by lactating does. You will see an increase in plant sulfur levels. The plant sulfur will help convert the nitrogen into protein. Protein is the #1 essential nutrient for antler development. We will see an increase in plant magnesium. Magnesium is the 4th most important nutrient for antler development. It is also essential for those does lactating in the spring.

 

In closing, when some say you do not need minerals for deer, they might be right. The would be correct if one was growing highly nutritious forages on their lands. In my estimation less than 10% of farmers and land managers are growing quality forages on healthy soils. As a result, there is more of a need for supplemental minerals now than back in the early 90’s but what is the solution? The solution is work with someone like me to help you bring your soils alive and the rest will fall into place.  

 

 

 

 

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