An interview with Glenn Shewmaker, Forage Extension Specialist, University of Idaho
Q. What is your background in forages?
SHEWMAKER: I have always had an interest in forages. Growing up we had beef and dairy cows on the farm, so it was something that was always around me.
One of the main reasons I went on to get my masters degree after graduating from the University of Idaho was my desire to take the range courses offered. They intrigued me and I wanted to get as much knowledge as possible at the time.
After college I worked full-time for several years on the family farm near Kimberly. From there I worked for the Agricultural Research Service with forages and mineral uptake.
I went on to get my doctorate degree from Utah State University and soon after I finished, the opening at the University of Idaho came about and the job description fit well with what I was wanting to do.
Since I still live on the farm, I help with the irrigating, swathing, raking, baling, and stacking. Being located in the center of the forage industry in south-central Idaho has allowed me to pursue research and help people in ways I have always wanted to. I have been with the university and Extension team ever since.
Q. In working with forages, what have you come to most appreciate about them?
SHEWMAKER: I would have to say the adaptability of forages to different conditions and their ability to continue to produce through adverse conditions.
They are also a great tool for the environment by providing a permanent cover for cropland. Another thing many people forget is the amount of overall production that comes from forages. Whether the crop is put up as hay or silage or grazed directly off the land, very few crops can come close to the overall production seen with forages.
Q. What is one of the bigger misconceptions most people have about forage production?
SHEWMAKER: We have seen from a resources standpoint that many people feel forages are a waste of water when compared with other options. Most feel that because hay or pasture isn’t seen as a high-value food crop, using water for irrigation purposes on these crops is not an efficient use of resources.
What people miss are the benefits that no others crops can produce. First, in the case with alfalfa and other legumes, there is a net nitrogen benefit to the cropping system when forages are used as a rotational crop. This benefit, along with soil retention and penetration of deep roots, keeps the land used in better condition over time.
Forages also require fewer carbon inputs overall, creating a much more desirable effect on the environment and agriculture in general. Alfalfa and other forages typically use fewer pesticides, herbicides and fossil fuel in comparison with other crops. It is hard to find anything else that even compares to being as environmentally friendly as forages.
Q. Being in Idaho, you have seen a large change in forage needs for the dairy industry’s increase in size. How have producers kept up with these changes?
SHEWMAKER: Forage producers through the area have been some of the most adaptable farmers to this change. Most have moved from alfalfa, small grains, potatoes and sugar beets to an alfalfa/corn silage rotation.
It used to be many years ago that everyone had a few dairy or beef cows, mainly to eat the alfalfa that was used as a rotational crop.
Now we have several large-scale forage producers who primarily focus their efforts strictly on meeting the needs of the surrounding dairies.
What was once an afterthought to production has taken on the role of cash crop for many of the producers throughout the area.
Q. What are opportunities you see forage producers missing?
SHEWMAKER: Forage producers are very good at making quality crops. Where they tend to make mistakes is in the marketing of their products and keeping up on the business aspect of their operation.
One example I see time and time again in working with producers is they don’t have a good feel for what their actual cost of production is. Either they are missing aspects they don’t account for or they are using data that is outdated for their type of operation.
Another problem I see creeping up on some producers is the desire to not rotate crops as often as they should. You see more and more, producers who run back-to-back corn silage or back-to-back alfalfa crops and many of the rotational benefits are lost.
Some of the practices that were used 50 and even 100 years ago in crop rotation are being lost and with them, the weed and insect suppression and nitrogen benefits when forages and other crops are rotated on a consistent basis. The economic benefits are even more apparent today with the price of inputs.
Q. What is one of the more important issues you are helping address in your area?
SHEWMAKER: In our area we are needing to get some current information and research done on the Clover Root Curculio problem. It is causing a lot of yield and stand loss that either we didn’t see in the past or are just starting to get a better handle on how it is impacting growers in our area.
Much of the information we are working with is from studies conducted several decades ago and many of the cropping practices we use today don’t fit into those models.
I am hoping to see some grant money and cooperative efforts with some entomologists to get a better idea as to the actual impact this pest is having on fields throughout the area.
Because there are other problems with alfalfa that have gotten more attention, I feel this pest has flown under the radar and needs to get closer attention in the near future.
Q. What is the one thing you wish forage producers did more often?
SHEWMAKER: I would like to see producers go out with a shovel on a regular basis and dig. Producers rarely do enough checking above-ground to see what is happening with plants and production, but I know we don’t do enough to see what is happening underground.
So much of what happens to the plant is down where the roots are. By taking the time to dig down and see what is happening, we can make management choices that can greatly affect both yield quality and quantity.
A good example is digging down to see just how far the roots really are. If your field is under pivot irrigation, you can make adjustments to take full advantage of the irrigation needs of the plant, creating the best use of water and growing conditions. Producers can head off problems before they get a chance to take hold and create yield loss that can’t be recovered from. FG
Forage Extension Specialist