It’s not uncommon to go to a forage meeting these days and find that one more research or Extension forage specialist retired and the position was left unfilled. Or to hear of forage research that is needed, but because of lack of funds and staff, not begun.
And now, 10 USDA ag research stations, as well as personnel, are being abandoned. Six of those stations, I’ve been told by a USDA employee, conduct forage or livestock research.
“Since 1984, we’ve lost about 40% of all forage-livestock researchers (from land-grant universities),” said Garry Lacefield in quoting Texas A&M study results.
“In the last decade, we lost about 30% of Extension forage specialists and, by 2018, we’ll lose another 30%,” he added. “The question we all need to think about is who is going to train our students? Who is going to conduct the research? And then, who’s going to deliver that information to producers in a form that can be used to make decisions on?”
Lacefield, a University of Kentucky Extension forage specialist, brought up these questions during a session at the American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC) meeting in Louisville, KY, last month. It was quite the discussion.
I learned that several of his colleagues across the country have been furloughed, or to put it in plain language, been forced to work a reduced number of hours because of budget limitations. And that the Auburn University Extension forage agronomist position that Don Ball retired from – a year ago – has not been filled.
The North Carolina grower sitting next to me told about how Extension in his state took a 12% hit in positions, one of which was the forage specialist position.
An industry representative knows of some Extension programs that have been so squeezed the specialists have had to raise grant money to afford travel to producer meetings.
“There are zero funds for travel or outreach,” confirms University of California (UC) Extension forage specialist Dan Putnam, when I asked him how secure his program was. “I have to do more research to support the Extension operation, and it’s been that way for at least 10 years. But, of course, the basic threat is the funding for personnel.”
On the bright side, I learned that a proposed 15% cut to Purdue University’s Extension service this past spring was prevented after Indiana producers showed what Extension brought to their operations.
“Administrators and politicians value producer input,” Lacefield said. Producers, he added, have more clout than he or his colleagues. I say they need to start using it.
“But one thing that speaks louder than people is money,” pointed out University of Georgia Extension forage specialist Dennis Hancock. “We better start thinking about ways to fund research as an industry.
“I’m really worried about what the future holds. I see a tremendous amount of opportunity (and certainly a growing need for high-quality forage). But there currently is no mechanism to support applied research and Extension-technology transfer-outreach.”
He’s right. The industry – producers, organizations and companies – must find ways to keep unbiased forage experts and research in place.
Yet, to be effective, the leaders within AFGC, the National Hay Association, and the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance must stop looking at their differences and decide to work together. Then they need to join hands with other groups, such as the beef and dairy industries, to fight before there’s nothing left to fight for.
It’s imperativethat the forage industry show its support – including financial support – of forage positions and research now, reiterated UC Davis forage specialist Putnam.
He predicted that UC Davis will not have a forage-crop emphasis within the next four to seven years “especially since the alfalfa industry does not appear to have taken steps … to develop funding mechanisms to encourage research or educational programs.
“The lack of a ‘partner’ with funds in the forage industry just about puts the nail in the coffin for CE (Cooperative Extension) forage positions,” he says.
“If a university dean has only one of two positions to fill – and one position has a partner (say the American Soybean Association or the Almond Board) and the other doesn’t (e.g. alfalfa) – which one wins?”
Unfortunately, states like Alabama and North Carolina already know the answer. Will Minnesota follow the trend as its forage specialist leaves for an out-of-state job? If our industry doesn’t pull itself together and show justification for these vital forage jobs, we can only blame ourselves.