GUELPH -- The long-awaited debut of the new Forage Masters Competition took place in February at the annual conference of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA). The previous competition ran successfully for about 30-years, but in recent years was experiencing reduced enrolment and not garnering much attention from new participants. The OSCIA, who is responsible for coordination, chose to close down the competition for 2016 and focused efforts on developing a fresh new approach.
For those who were familiar with the previous competition, the changes introduced with the new product will be immediately detected.
The Committee assigned the task of engineering the new and improved product was led by Don Oliver, OSCIA Director for the East Central Region. He was assisted by several others on the Board of Directors and staff. Experts willingly stepped up from OMAFRA and from industry to lend their skills and ideas, and the exercise also benefited from advice offered by OSCIA members.
Four goals were central in developing the new design: improve forage management; boost the profile of forages; increase awareness of the economic and environmental benefits of growing forage; and renew interest in the Forage Masters Competition.
"Producers are constantly seeking information on how to refine production practices to optimize profits and safeguard the environment, and participating in the new Forage Masters Competition will help them achieve that," says Mack Emiry, OSCIA President. "Improving soil health is a major focus of this organization, and there is no better way to build soil organic carbon than a well-managed perennial crop."
To be successful and sustainable over a long period of time, the new approach to Forage Masters needed to be efficient and affordable, expandable over time, directly engage grassroots members across the province, and provide real value to our sponsors. "I think we've accomplished that," remarked Oliver. "The comments we have received from members so far are extremely encouraging, and the confidence shown by three important sponsors who have already committed resources is most gratifying."
The new procedures start with the participant completing a self-assessment of their current forage management practices. "We took a page from the highly-successful Environmental Farm Plan with the emphasis put on producer education," says Oliver. "The Forage Master Self-Assessment allows growers to choose the statement that best reflects current management, and offers best practices to encourage where they should be headed for optimal results." Choices range from Best, to Good, to Needs Improvement. Participants only answer questions that apply to their operation, and the competition is equally open to all farm sectors that rely on forage. Only OSCIA members can participate.
There are 45 questions in all across three modules, each dealing with a different aspect of forage production: the agronomics of growing; harvesting, storage, and feeding; and finally ensiling. The writer assigned the task of compiling the modules and structuring the questions was popular farm journalist Ray Ford, a forage producer himself. "Synthesizing the considerable amounts of information down to easy-to-understand questions was no easy task," remarked Oliver, "but with Ray's flair for writing and the technical scrutiny provided by experts to ensure technical accuracy, we are extremely pleased with the final product." Printing for the hard copy of the Self-Assessment was sponsored by SGS Agrifood Laboratories. An on-line version is underway and will soon be available on the OSCIA website.
Participants will be asked to forward a summary of their responses, along with results of their most recent soil analysis and feed analysis to the Guelph OSCIA office, where a confidential scoring procedure will be applied. The deadline for 2017 is July 15. An aggregate grade will be shared with the participant, and with a designated point-person for the OSCIA Region. Once the top scores are verified across the region, the first-, second- and third-place finishers will be notified and arrangements made to present the prizes that have been generously provided by General Seed Company.
The first-place finishers from each of the 11 OSCIA regions will be invited to participate in the provincial speaking competition to be held at the next OSCIA Annual Conference. This provides the opportunity to share experiences and tips with others in the farm community. Each presenter will be judged and an overall winner declared for the year. ProRich Seeds is sponsoring the provincial speaking competition.
Oliver sums up by recognizing how much has been accomplished. "We are right where we wanted to be with rolling this out at the Annual Conference," says Oliver. "We are most grateful for the individuals and companies that have contributed, but the true test will be to see participation levels in the competition over the upcoming growing season."
For more details go to www.ontariosoilcrop.org and look up Membership/Forage Masters Competition.