Forage crops are grass and legume plant species that are grown for livestock feed as well as land conservation and reclamation. It is the vegetative portion of the plant, mainly leaves and stems, which is consumed by livestock. Forage crops are fibrous in nature; ruminant livestock, such as cattle and sheep, require this fibre in their diet for proper digestion. They also obtain nutrients such as protein, minerals, and vitamins from forage crops. As forage plants mature, they become more fibrous and have lower concentrations of essential nutrients. Forage crops can be grazed directly by animals in pastures, or conserved for winter feeding as hay or silage.
In Saskatchewan, forage crops are grown on close to three million hectares (Census of Canada, 2001), second only to wheat. Most forage crops are consumed by livestock on the same farm on which they were produced. However, a certain portion of the seeded forage area is used for the production of high-quality alfalfa pellets and cubes, most of which are exported. There is also a growing baled hay industry in the province, serving both the domestic and export markets.
Both annual and perennial plant species are used as forage crops, but perennials are much more commonly utilized. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.), a legume, is the most important forage crop in Saskatchewan. It offers high productivity, excellent quality, drought tolerance, and the ability to fix and utilize atmospheric nitrogen - thus not requiring the addition of nitrogen fertilizer. Saskatchewan is the world's largest producer of alfalfa seed, with markets across Canada and in many other countries.
The most widely grown grass species are smooth bromegrass (Bromus inermis L.), meadow bromegrass (Bromus riparius Rehm.), and crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum L.). These grasses, which are the principal species seeded in pastures, show high productivity, winter hardiness, and drought tolerance, and are commonly mixed with alfalfa in fields for hay production. There are a large number of other grass and legume species used as forage crops, giving Saskatchewan producers a choice of species adapted to almost any soil and climatic condition. Forage legumes and grasses, because of their wide adaptability and long-lived perennial nature, are frequently used for revegetation of disturbed areas such as roadsides and mines, as low maintenance turf species, and for wildlife habitat preservation.