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Forages give us a pretty sweet deal

bettapoggi/Getty Bee pollinating alfalfa flower
SWEET DEAL: Forage crops like alfalfa provide habitat for wildlife and pollinators, and much more. They also help improve soil health and provide farmers with a valuable cash crop. Celebrate National Forage Week; it began Sunday and lasts until tomorrow, June 26.
Forages like alfalfa provide many more benefits to sustainability — beyond livestock feed alone.

He doesn’t look it, but once upon a time, my dad was a bee’s best friend. Well, at least several hives’ best friend.

See, back when my parents were still farming, we raised Angus seedstock, and we also grew alfalfa — not only for our own herd’s consumption but also to sell across the U.S. Springs and summers were a blur of planting forage sorghum, harvesting wheat, and cutting and baling alfalfa hay.

One day, back before I was born, a local beekeeper approached my dad with a proposition. Let him put his hives on our alfalfa fields in exchange for a case of honey every year at Christmas. Dad’s alfalfa had a plethora of pollinators, and those bees had their version of the all-you-can-carry “Pollen Corral.”

It was, as they say, a pretty sweet deal.

National Forage Week

I was thinking about those hives on our alfalfa fields when a press release from the American Forage and Grassland Council came across my desk, celebrating the seventh annual National Forage Week, June 20-26.

It’s something we in agriculture take for granted that everyone should know and understand: Forage crops like alfalfa are how we upcycle crops that grow on marginal ground — and that humans can’t consume into high-quality, bigger-bang-for-your-nutritional-buck protein for our plates.

But there are many more benefits to forage crops, and it’s on all of us to help our neighbors understand the bigger picture.

Side benefits

Take my dad’s alfalfa fields and those hives, for example. Sure, there was a quid pro quo on the surface —Dad needed pollinators for his crops, and the pollinators needed the crop’s pollen. And yes, that alfalfa went to feed beef cattle and dairy cattle, which produced high-quality beef and dairy products. But alfalfa and other forage crops also played a conservation role on our ground.

The alfalfa boosted nutrient cycling for my dad’s crop rotations. As a ground cover, it reduced erosion and helped water infiltration, which in turn helped overall soil health. (And that was back before “soil health” was a buzz phrase.)

Those alfalfa fields also attracted not only bees and pollinators, but also deer and other wildlife as well. And thus, the fields improved the overall health of the ecosystem of our community. Our valley was a hunter’s paradise, with loads of healthy deer and other wildlife because of the forage crops we raised in our fields and pastures.

Maybe even more importantly for our family, alfalfa was a cash crop that helped diversify the farm’s balance sheet. When wheat or grain prices were in the tank, sometimes alfalfa paid the bills.

It’s an agricultural lesson that our neighbors outside of agriculture might actually understand if we take the time to explain it to them. Forage crops not only feed livestock, but they also help pollinators and wildlife, soils and farm families. Forage crops fit the three-legged stool of sustainability: economic, sociological and environmental.

All that, and a case of honey, too. 

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