Historians estimate that major grassland areas, such as the prairies of the United States, the pampas of South America, the steppes of central Asia, and the velds of Africa, began developing about 20-25 million years ago. Because of the natural life and death cycle, over long periods of time, the undisturbed grasslands produced a deep, fertile topsoil. These very fertile grassland areas are still used today but often cultivated for production of major food crops like wheat and corn, as well as for forages. Before human activity began to alter grasslands they were naturally maintained as productive grasslands by favorable climate, grazing wildlife, and natural fires.

Early in human civilization, grasslands were not intenstively managed in the sense that they are today. They were utilized by wandering animals and by people who used those animals for food and other products. As civilization continued to develop, humans began a process of domesticating or taming some of the wandering animals and more intensive management of livestock on forage lands developed. Gradually a distinction evolved between grassland developed by man and natural grasslands. This distinction is important in studying the types of grasses grown.

Further changes in the principles and practices of producing forages began to roughly parallel historical developments in agricultural technology in general. For example, crop scientists began to search for and to breed higher yielding varieties of crops. This process eventually was used to discover and breed higher yielding and higher-quality forage crops.

This process of discovery and breeding superior forage plants has played a key role in the development of highly productive forage growth. Although there are 10,000 species of grasses, only about 40 - 50 are used on grasslands developed by man. And none of these come from the world's natural grasslands (Hoveland, 1987). In many cases grasses from various forest edges and woodlands around the world have ultimately become more important forage species than the species that are considered native. Sometimes very important forage species were carried intentionally or unintentionally by immigrants to their new homes. For example, alfalfa, one of the most important forages in the U.S., originated in the area of modern-day Iran and Turkey. Bermudagrass, a very important forage in the southern U.S., was apparently brought to the country inadvertently by African slave ships. It was stuffed into mattresses as bedding and eventually some of the seed ended up in places where it grew successfully. Kentucky bluegrass, well known pasture grass, was apparently introduced to America from England as part of the sweepings of cattle boats.

The table below highlights key events in the history of agriculture and forage production. Familiarize yourself with the key events mentioned in the table to help you gain an appropriate historical perspective of forage production and management. 

Table 3. Important forage-related historical events.
circa 10,000 BC Domestication of animals
circa 500 - 150 BC Alfalfa introduced as a cultivated crop in Greece and Rome
800 AD Clover used as a forage by Saxons
Early 1600's Sir Richard Weston introduces red clover into pastures in England
Mid 1600's Forage grasses introduced in North America
Late 1600's Native Americans raise cattle from colonists
Late 1600's Bermudagrass imported from Northern Africa
1720 Timothy brought to North America
1800's Fertilizers introduced in Europe
Mid 1800's Johnsongrass introduced in southern U.S.
1862 Morrill Act established U.S. Land Grant Universities
1873 Construction of first silo in U.S.
1886 Discovery of nitrogen fixation in legumes by Hellriegel and Willfarth
1931 Tall fescue discovered in eastern Kentucky
1940 Development of self-tying hay bale