C4-MR-2-Forage suitability 1by Tamara Scully
“There are very few states where Natural Resources Conservation Services staff have developed and completed all Forage Suitability Groups (FSGs) for their state,” Kevin Ogles, grazing specialist with NRCS said. “There are not any NRCS states in the Eastern U.S. that have completed them. However, recently most Eastern U.S. NRCS states have begun the process and will have them completed in a few years.”
FSGs aren’t a new tool. But today, a new emphasis on completion of this resource is occurring. NRCS staff were recently given a training session by Ogles, explaining exactly what FSGs are, why they are needed, and how farmers will be better served once FSG data is operable.
“Currently an individual NRCS planner has to gather lots of information as well as develop some other needed information to have the same data as an FSG would provide for a specific set of pastures for an individual livestock farm or ranch,” Ogles said. “Once FSGs are developed and completed by NRCS states, they will be a time savings to both the planner and the farmer.”
What It Is
According to the technical definitions, an FSG is “a group of soils that have similar agronomic properties, capacity to support comparable yields of the same forage species, and require similar treatment and management to optimize yields,” Ogles said. Knowing which FSGs are operational on any given piece of land will allow a farmer to plant the best forage for pasture, improve pasture conditions, or decide which land is best suited to hay, and which to graze.
FSGs will be indicated on a planning map. By knowing what FSGs are present on any given piece of land, a farmer will have all the data needed to make the best decisions for utilizing the land. FSGs will contain all the information needed for planning in depth in one place.
Each FSG will be given a number and a name. It will contain climate data; list soil group information and associated soil mapping units; contain a list of adapted forage species, anticipated yields and annual growth curves; list soil limitations; and provide information on management considerations and management dynamics. The FSG will give the planner and farmer a full description of the soil properties and response to management variables, and will quantify the growth habits of forage crops suitable to the FSG.
“It’s not only by soils, but also by climate,” Ogles said of the FSG groupings. Each FSG is specific to certain parameters of environmental conditions which go beyond planting zone or soil type. Any given species of forage may be found in more than one FSG. There are some widely adapted forages which can do well under various soil and climatic conditions, so those forages will show up in more than one FSG.
The Best Forages
For any given piece of land, the FSGs found there will outline the anticipated forage yields, allowing a farmer to select the best options for each field. Monthly forage growth and yield curves, possible down to cultivar information, will be one aspect of the FSG that will be of primary importance for livestock producers. The FSGs will outline the anticipated total yield of the forages in the group, and do so on a month-to-month basis. This monthly yield growth curve will assist in planning forages, allowing growers to plant a wide array of adapted forages so that forage availability is optimized year-round.
“It really matters what the growth curve is, and what that yield is. It’s greatly going to affect how much forage is available for that livestock, and for that farmer,” Ogles said. Yields for all types of forages, perennial and annual, and cold and warm season grasses and legumes, will be specified. FSGs will  look at yields and outcomes under good — not excellent — management conditions, Ogles said. This gives a more realistic view of land’s potential under normal operating conditions.
FSGs will include: soil type; land topography; drainage class; pH below the plow layer; frost heave potential; surface rock fragment data; organic matter; depth to restrictive layers; flooding potential and anticipated duration; the aspect of the land; the length of the growing season; and the forage growth data. A discussion of conservation practices related to the soil limitations, as well as management recommendations to maintain productivity, will be enumerated.
FSGs will provide information which is very close to being “farm-specific” for yield and land potential. This data will help a farmer plan for fencing and pipe installation, will help him to make soil amendment decisions, and plan for forage needs throughout the season and on a farm-wide scale. Farmers will be able to “match up goals” with the realities of their land, using FSGs to maximize potential.
“Once completed, it will be a tremendous resource for both NRCS planners and livestock producers to have a large amount of information available to them to make management decisions on their land and soils,” Ogles said. “FSGs are a tremendous asset in high-quality planning on pasture.”