About 2/3 of the world's land mass contains predominantly grasses. Since humans cannot beneficially consume the cellulose within grasses, what is the best way to utilize this common plant species? The best way that civilization has developed is to allow ruminant animals to feed on the cellulosic plants and convert the grasses into energy producing other very beneficial products to mankind.

In the world of agriculture, forages are the unappreciated and sometimes forgotten plants that make the management of livestock possible but also serve as the foundation of recreational and conservation areas. Some have stated that without grasslands, civilization would still be extremely primitive since gathering food from other sources would require most of each day. And most land would be uninhabitable without the soil-binding capabilities of grasses.

a. Products.

It's likely that the typical American consumer does not appreciate the vital role forages play in everday life. A wide variety of products and services are directly dependent on successful forage production.

Historically, the majority of American consumers lived and worked on farms. Thus the connection between forages and everyday products such as milk and leather were well known by much of American society. At the turn of the century, more than 75% of the country's gross national product and 85% of its employment opportunities were associated with agriculture. Today 18% of the gross national product and 16% of employment opportunities are agricultural (Lipton and Edmonston, 1993). Presently, less than 3% of our population are classified as full time farmers. Thus many modern consumers are not familiar with the whole process of how food or fabrics are manufactured. Many of us are largely unaware or forgetful that the source of the daily products we take for granted are agricultural raw materials.


Products such as leather, milk, and wool are commonly used by millions of Americans. What is the ultimate source of these valuable products? It would be correct to say that they are derived from animals. But what enables animals to produce any of these products? Their source of energy for living and producing is found in the food they eat. Much of the food of animals is FORAGES.


The table below summarizes the source of a number of important forage-based products.

Table 2. Important forage-based products.
Products Source
Milk, Cheese, Butter, Cream, Ice cream Milk from dairy cows that eat FORAGES.
Wool Shearings from sheep that eat FORAGES.
Leather Hides from animals that eat FORAGES.
Beef, Mutton, Lamb, Venison Meat from beef cows, sheep, and deer that eat FORAGES.
Biomass Fuels Fiber from switchgrass, alfalfa, corn and other FORAGES.
Medicinal Products Biochemical intermediates from FORAGES.


b. Environmental benefits.

Forages are extremely important in the production of food and fiber. However, forages also play a vitally important role in maintaining a good natural environment. Specifically, communities of forage plants produce oxygen for clean air, help to reduce soil erosion, aid in keeping sediment out of waterways, provide food and shelter for wildlife, and beautify our surroundings with a variety of foliage and flowers. Row crops are 10-50% more likely to exhibit erosion than pastures and meadows of forages. A more comprehensive list of the benefits forages provide to the environment is illustrated by the pictures below.

Pictures of stream, wildlife, wildflowers, recreation, soil   (something to suggest erosion or lack of erosion), oxygen cycle, etc. Each picture will be linked to a file that briefly explains the benefit.

Click on the picture to obtain a brief explanation of how forages provide specific environmental benefits.

c. Economic benefits.

Forages, whether they exist on farms, grasslands and rangeland make up one half of the total land in America. Although measuring the full value of forages is difficult, since much of it is not harvested and sold as a product, it is estimated that 1/4 of the total value of agriculture is comprised of forages. Overall economic value of harvested forages and pastures is on the order of 18 billion dollars (Black, 1995). If the total value of all the products derived from animals living on forages and the draft power and fertilizer that exist with domesticated animals is added up, forages could be one of our most valuable resources and our best potential for the future. The USDA provides the National Agricultural Statistics Service which may be contacted for more specific statistical information. NASS Customer Service: nass@nass.usda.gov