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Longtime Nebraska forage specialist reflects on career

Photos by Curt Arens Hay production
FORAGE ECONOMICS: Nebraska Extension forage specialist Bruce Anderson retired last summer, but he reflected on his career in helping forage growers and livestock producers across the region. “Recognize that forage economics often affect profitability in livestock systems, more than any other component,” Anderson notes. “Producers should consider themselves forage farmers, with livestock primarily harvesting and marketing the crops.”
Bruce Anderson retired this past summer after decades of working with farmers.

Bruce Anderson grew up on a small dairy farm in south-central Minnesota. He earned his bachelor’s degree in agronomy from the University of Minnesota and master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Missouri.

Anderson eventually took a job as Nebraska Extension forage specialist in 1979, and that has been his role for the past 42 years. Anderson retired last June, but the legacy he has established with farmers, forage producers, dairies and livestock feeders over the past decades is well rooted.

One of his early projects was demonstrating the mobile, computerized near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy forage-testing equipment around the state and in neighboring states. At the time, there were no private laboratories using this equipment, so NIRS offered farmers a less expensive alternative for forage analysis and a much shorter wait period for the results.

Fine-tuning testing

“The science has been fine-tuned to some extent,” Anderson says of NIRS. “Equipment used by labs are slightly more powerful in terms of NIR light wavelengths used” since those early days in the mid- to late-1980s. “The wavelengths are more uniform, reducing some of the differences between labs,” he adds.

“The software used by labs to develop their own equations has also improved, but more importantly, the components that can be measured have increased,” Anderson explains. “Most impact is with digestible neutral detergent fiber. In the '80s and '90s, we measured total NDF, then combined it with acid detergent fiber to calculate relative feed value.

"This was a major step forward in evaluating forages, but it had some weaknesses. First, it assumed that all fiber was equally digestible, which was incorrect. As a result, two forages with the same RFV could produce large differences in milk production.”

Farmers attending Bruce Anderson grass workshop

TALKING FORAGES: Bruce Anderson (center), retired Nebraska Extension forage specialist, speaks with farmers at a cool-season grass workshop near David City a few years ago. Anderson spent his professional career helping farmers and ranchers understand how to produce, market and feed quality forages.

By shifting to digestible NDF and then calculating relative forage quality, the predictability of animal performance, especially milk production, was greatly improved, Anderson says.

“As an added bonus, nutritionists could use these new values more effectively in developing rations,” he says. “And now, even further advances in forage testing are leading to measurements of total tract neutral detergent fiber digestibility.

“Another advantage is that silages can be analyzed similarly as hay, which wasn’t advisable before,” Anderson adds. The recommendations for forage testing haven’t changed much over time.

“Timing focuses on shortly before feeding or whenever decisions need to be made for marketing or storage,” he says. “Some sampling suggestions have been developed to assist producers at determining how much variability may exist within a hay lot or load. These might include taking several samples or even individual bale samples for the sake of comparisons. This can also help determine how good individual sampling techniques might be.”

Impact on forage world

In addition to NIRS analysis, Anderson was also deeply involved in the founding of the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association. He was in on the ground level of the Nebraska Grazing Conference and participated for many years with several Nebraska Extension educators on the “New Tools for Pasture Production” workshop series that was held at locations around the state.

In February 1991, Anderson hit the radio airwaves with his “Hay and Forage Minute” radio program. Over 30 years, Anderson wrote and recorded more than 3,000 radio programs on alfalfa production, warm-season grasses, forage quality, hay and pasture systems, and forage-livestock systems. The program aired on as many as 50 Nebraska radio stations.

Since his early days in Extension, Anderson notes that hay marketing opportunities have increased for forage producers, thanks to online connections and organizations such as NAMA. He also notes an increase in new grazing management strategies like Management-intensive Grazing, mob grazing, holistic management, and new techniques and equipment for fencing and watering systems.

Anderson says that the interest in cover crops, not only for soil health, but also as a forage, has grown rapidly. On the equipment side, big square balers were not even around when he started his career, but they have changed forage production and marketing since their wide adoption by farmers.

After years serving Nebraska producers, Anderson has sage advice to offer. “Recognize that forage economics often affect profitability of livestock systems, more than any other component,” he notes. “Producers should consider themselves forage farmers, with livestock primarily harvesting and marketing the crops.”

He reminds farmers that new products or methods must fit into your operation and style, so don’t believe every sales pitch that comes along. “Be willing to try things on a low-risk basis,” Anderson adds. “Listen. Read. Think.”

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