Foraging into the Future
What are the best combinations of native and introduced forage species for enhancing forage production on the Canadian Prairies? Researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's (AAFC's) Semiarid Prairie Agriculture Research Centre (SPARC) are looking to answer that question.
Led by Dr. Mike Schellenberg, a Range and Forage Plant Ecologist, the team aims to find ways to use perennial forage plants that have a proven track record in surviving the extremes of the prairie climate.
One of the priorities of the Beef Cattle Industry Science Cluster is to help cattle producers raise more beef with fewer resources – in part by reducing production costs and increasing feed efficiency. In an effort to increase forage and grassland productivity by 33%, Dr. Schellenberg’s research will seek to increase yields and nutritional quality of perennial forage species through plant breeding, as well as improve pasture, forage and grazing management techniques. The project builds on previous species selection work and will evaluate a number of native and tame species combinations to identify ones with improved seed yield and forage value.
Dr. Schellenberg’s team will evaluate a number of species, including nodding brome, blue bunch wheatgrass, western wheatgrass, side oats gramma, little blue stem, purple prairie clover and white prairie clover - all of which were developed through AAFC’s breeding program. Several species that have never been examined before, including ascending milkvetch, slender milkvetch and American vetch, will also be included in the study. In addition to the native species, introduced species such as hybrid brome and alfalfa will be selected for improved drought and production characteristics.
Benefits of Native Species
Fittingly, many of the species studied in this project were initially of interest as reclamation species, and are only now being examined from a forage standpoint.
This makes sense, since native grass species are inherently more resilient to changes in their environment. They are already suited to the environment, and their plant populations have great genetic variability. This increased variability allows some plants in the population to survive even under extreme conditions, such as prolonged periods of drought. Native species can be as good as, if not better than, introduced species both from a biomass production and nutritional quality perspective. Integrating these species into modern grazing and forage production systems could provide more stable forage production and pasture management.
The perennial forage species mentioned above, along with a few others from greenhouse trials, will then be combined into various groupings and assessed at several locations throughout the prairie region.
The researchers will also determine benefits of purple prairie clover for nutritional value for optimizing herd health. This portion of the study will use ongoing grazing trials at SPARC using yearling steers.
The results of the study will lead to recommendations for better forage mixtures for greater genetic diversity and a more resilient landscape.
The Beef Cattle Industry Science Cluster is a partnership between AAFC and the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) to ensure that applied beef research funds are allocated to research priorities and activities that have the greatest potential to benefit the competitiveness of Canada's beef cattle industry.
For more information, or to set up an interview:
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
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