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Union Forage hits the ground growing

Small seed company finding its way into western Canadian pastures

It started with one Alberta beef producer looking for a productive and profitable way to achieve year-round grazing on his own farm. Six years later it’s an expanding forage seed company with a team of specialists urging producers to think outside the paddock perimeter.

Union Forage, headquartered in Calgary, was an idea launched by southwestern Alberta beef producer Graeme Finn in 2014 as he was looking for ways to extend the grazing season for his family-owned yearling and cow-calf operation in the Crossfield area north of Calgary. He had been using rotational grazing and oat swath grazing.

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“I was looking for something that would add a kick to the feed value of oat swaths,” Finn says. “And it really just happened almost by accident that I met up with a representative of PGG Seeds at a trade show in Red Deer. And the guy urged me to a take a few bags of forage seed — Winfred forage rape — to see if I could use it and sell it. It was a forage not commonly grown in Canada.”

PGG Seeds is part of New Zealand-based PGG Wrightson Seeds, a leading developer of forages including brassicas, forbs, legumes and grasses often used in pasture blends for grazing livestock.

Finn liked what the forage rape added to fall and winter swath grazing for his cattle, and the business idea grew from there.

Yearlings doing well on a Union Forage pasture blend that includes broadleaf, grasses and legume varieties.
photo: Graeme Finn

That chance meeting launched an ongoing partnership with PGG Seeds and kicked started a newer concept for Western Canada — seeding and harvesting diversified forage/pasture blends, not only to provide high-quality forage for an extended grazing season, but to benefit soil health as well.

“We pioneered the concept of using different annual and perennial forage blends,” says Finn. “Now there are several competitors in the marketplace as well. But our focus continues to be to help livestock producers to develop nutrient-dense, high-quality forages that can be converted to pounds of beef.  We can help guys out with the whole grazing system on their operations not just sell them the seed. That is the first step in helping to improve the bottom line and profitability. Its takes a whole systems approach which is based around not just the pastures but the way the pastures are managed from electric fencing, to watering sites, to cell grazing set-ups and to over all forage management.”

Appreciating the potential of the new seed business, Finn assembled beef industry investors that today includes the Union Forage ownership group that owns and/or manages ranches across the Prairies, collectively grazing 3,000 cows and 10,000 yearlings on 40,000 acres.

General manager Geoff Barker joined the company in 2016 as Union Forage developed a dealer network across Western Canada.

The company has also added regional forage and business development specialists who work with producers in developing forage blends and grazing programs tailored to their operations.

Along with Finn in Alberta, those specialists include Ben Stuart in Rhein, Sask.; Brent Difley in Calgary; Mark McNinch in Mervin, Sask.; Darren Keown in Roblin, Man; Roger Meyers in Minton, Sask; and Mike Witt in Vernon, BC. Longtime, well-known former Alberta Agriculture forage extension specialist Grant Lastiwka has recently joined the team.

Along with PGG Seeds of New Zealand, other Union Forage business partners include Barenbrug seeds of The Netherlands with North American headquarters in Oregon, FP Genetics in Saskatchewan, S & W Seeds based in Colorado, FCC and dairy and beef nutrition specialists, Nutrisource — Dairytech and Bullseye consulting services.

And to tie everything together a little more than a year ago, Union Forage established its office headquarters in a 12,000-square foot warehouse and distribution centre in southeast Calgary.

The 12,000 sq ft Union Forage warehouse looks quiet now, but towards late winter it will be stacked to the ceiling for seed to be distributed to dealers across Western Canada.
photo: Geoff Barker

Union Forage offers a diversified portfolio of annual and perennial forage seed blends that can be as simple or as complex as the customer prefers.

“Whether it is annual or perennial seed mixture, we work with customers to determine the proper blend for their locale and class of livestock,” Finn says. “The mixtures include cultivars developed specifically for palatability, biomass production, and most importantly, for profit from Canadian research and from  the rest of the world. We should be looking around the world to see what other grazier and researchers are doing that we could adopt for our own use here in Canada. It could take only one change that we could use at the farm gate to be a game changer on the ranch.

Finn points out that Union Forage was the first company in North America to treat all forage seed with mycorrhizal fungi spores to help reintroduce biology back into to the soils.

“Other companies are now starting to do the same seed treatment as well,” he says. “For a little group of guys we have made some big steps in a short time.

“With increased plant biomass above ground and greater root development below ground, it benefits the soil microbiology, increases soil carbon as well as water-holding capacity and nutrient cycling. When you grow more, you leave more for the soil. When you leave more for the soil, you capture wealth.”

For more information visit unionforage.com.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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