Forage refers to plants consumed by animals, particularly livestock. Forage may be preserved by drying the plants to produce hay, it may be fermented to produce silage, and dried material is also compressed to produce compacted hay, pellets, and cubes (Canada is a major exporter of compressed products). The cold climate of Canada makes it necessary to feed livestock with preserved forages over the winter. Most forage used to feed Canadian livestock is grown domestically and fed on-farm to cattle. Livestock are fed cereal grain to some extent, but grass and legumes forages are much cheaper and account for over 80% of livestock feed in Canada. Hay produced from cultivated crops is called "tame hay." In the first decade of the 21st century, Canada produced about 25 million tonnes of tame hay annually, from about 8 million ha of land. Alberta is the largest producer, but there is substantial production in all provinces except for the Maritimes. In Québec over 60% of the farm land grows forages. In Ontario, 40% of the crop land is dedicated to forages. The average annual yield of most forages on productive land in Canada is about 4 tonnes of dry matter per hectare.
Canada's forage resources include rangelands with wild plants that can be eaten by animals left to roam. The 4 western provinces have 96% of the 25 million ha of Canadian rangeland used for livestock production, 82% of the nation's cultivated pasture, 64% of the forage crop area, and 84% of the almost 5 million beef cows (Canada has about 1.3 million dairy cows, with Quebec as the main centre of production). Forages are also required to feed Canada's half million adult sheep and about as many ewes (female sheep), over 800 000 horses, and smaller numbers of other livestock.
Plants of the legume family (Fabaceae) are noted for their high content of nutritious protein. All of the forage legumes grown in Canada are native to the Old World, particularly the Mediterranean area. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is Canada's (indeed the temperate world's) most valuable forage. Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is more suited to imperfect soil drainage than alfalfa. Alsike clover (T. hybridum) and white clover (T. repens) are also widely cultivated. At least a dozen additional legume species are used as forage in Canada, but in relatively limited quantities.
Grasses (family Poaceae) are the natural food of most grazing mammals. Almost all forage grasses in Canada are improved cultivars of European species. Different grasses are adapted to grow in different areas of Canada, depending on soil and climate conditions. Timothy (Phleum pratense) is the most widely grown grass outside dry parts of the Prairie region, and is a dominant forage grass in eastern Canada. Crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) is a dominant forage grass in western Canada. Orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) and Russian wild ryegrass (Elymus junceus) are dominant forage grasses in British Columbia. Bromegrass (Bromus inermis) is grown in eastern Canada and on the Prairies. Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) is commonly grown in many areas.