Beef cattle and forages have been part of the research program at Brandon's Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada farm from its beginning 127 years ago.
The research centre is among the five original research centres the federal government set up across the country back in 1886 when the connection between agricultural research and farm productivity was first acknowledged.
In the early days, it focused on delivering superior genetics to producers. In the late-1960s, a long-term beef program was set up in Brandon to evaluate the foreign cattle breeds that were being imported to the Prairies, and more specifically, how producers needed to adapt to accommodate the needs of larger-framed animals with exotic names such as Charolais, Limousin and Simmental. They were different animals requiring different management than the more compact British breeds farmers had been raising.
In more recent times, the research focus shifted towards integrating beef production with forage and nutrient management in an eastern Prairie environment.
In essence, the program shifted its focus from producing good cattle over time to growing good grass, the value of which was harvested by cattle. It is a small, but fundamental, distinction that recognized the role forages and grasslands play in the Prairie ecosystem, as well as the importance of the beef economy to Canadian agriculture.
But not any more. AAFC has cut the Brandon program. The researcher's position is being moved to Alberta and the technicians looking after the 800 head of cattle have been axed. What will happen to the herd itself remains to be seen.
"We are consolidating our national science capacity in key locations in line with our efforts to concentrate expertise and use our resources more effectively to generate the science and knowledge needed to advance the industry," an AAFC official wrote in an email to the Manitoba Co-operator.
"Consolidating activities will allow more financial resources to be directed at research and development and less on maintaining herds."
In all, there are 22 AAFC positions being cut in Manitoba, eight of them in Brandon. The cuts come less than a month after the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association wrote to federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to say more forage research is needed, not less.
It's been obvious for awhile retiring federal scientists were not being replaced and the scientists still on staff were no longer allowed the funds to attend conferences to share their findings or interact with producers.
Wheat is commonly touted as Canada's biggest annual crop by volume. Canola is the biggest generator of farm-cash receipts. Cultivated forages are Canada's biggest crop by acreage, accounting for 39 per cent of the land devoted to crop production. That's not factoring in the even higher acreage devoted to native or unimproved pastures and rangeland. Wheat is a distant second at 23 per cent of the cultivated land.
In monetary terms, forage is a $5 billion industry in Canada and it provides the underpinnings to the $11-billion beef and dairy sectors. Manitoba is a cow-calf province, with nearly half of all farms reporting having cattle. It has the third-largest beef herd in the country.
Forage and grasslands deliver immeasurable environmental benefits through the maintenance of healthy air and water, reduced soil erosion and maintaining biodiversity on the landscape.
But because 85 per cent of the forage produced in Canada is fed on the farm and because forages are only sown once every few years, the sector can't readily tap into the commodity checkoff model that raises research funds for annual crops. It doesn't draw much by way of private-sector investment either because there is no easy way to get a return. If anything, its effectiveness at reducing weed and pest pressures when included in a crop rotation works against it for attracting private-sector investment.
The federal government recently identified research, innovation and market access as key priorities for agriculture going forward, even justifying cuts to farm supports to do it, but its commitment to forage and beef research --at least on the eastern Prairies -- is anything but clear.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.