VERNON – A cooperative forage research program between Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and Hebrew University of Jerusalem scientists could boost grazing options for livestock producers in both nations.
“The program is funded by a 2004 grant from the Texas-Israel Exchange Program,” said Dr. Dariusz Malinowski, Experiment Station assistant professor-forages based at Vernon. “Our objective is to develop sustainable agro-ecosystems using introduced cool-season perennial grasses on the southern Great Plains of Texas.
“Our counterparts in Israel hope to use these grasses to improve or rebuild degraded natural grasslands.”
Agronomists and plant breeders have attempted to introduce improved cool-season perennial grasses to the semi-arid Great Plains environment for at least three decades. Their intent was to complement grazing provided by dual-use wheats, warm-season grass pastures and native rangelands.
“Unfortunately, those grasses don’t produce much forage in winter and they are not adapted to drought or extreme heat,” Malinowski said. “In recent years, breeders in Argentina, Australia, Italy and New Zealand have developed drought-resistant cultivars of cool-season perennial grasses based on grasses native to the Mediterranean Basin of Europe and Africa.”
The severity and duration of summer drought in the Mediterranean Basin is similar to the Texas Rolling Plains. In 2000, Malinowski tested some of these grasses at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Vernon. They yielded well in clipping trials, survived severe summer drought and persisted well through dry winters.
“As the days grow longer and temperatures rise, these grasses go dormant and stay dormant regardless of soil moisture,” Malinowski said. “This is called obligatory summer dormancy. They break dormancy and begin to grow again when the days grow shorter and temperatures drop about the time we receive our autumn rains.
“They obtain their peak growth from January through March, and produce nutritious forage. They do well in a variety of soils, are less expensive to establish than wheat and they are not fertilizer-hungry.”
The Texas-Israel research program will evaluate the long-term productivity, adaptability and grazing value of these grasses in both nations. Malinowski and Dr. Bill Pinchak, Experiment Station ruminant nutritionist at Vernon, recently began a grazing study using two cultivars planted in 2004. They will measure weight gains of grazing cattle and overall forage productivity this winter.
“We are also testing some new parent stock cultivars to see how well they will survive here,” Malinowski said. “Dr. Pinchak and I visited Israel in May to see how grasslands are managed in Israel. Dr. Jaime Kigel from Israel will visit Vernon sometime in 2006 to see how we manage grasslands and grazing systems.
“This exchange of information and expertise may lead to new varieties and cultivars with proven grazing/forage value.”
Giving livestock producers more grazing options could prove important if Great Plains weather continues to trend toward hotter, dryer conditions.
“If you look at long-term weather records for the Great Plains, you see a gradual rise in mean annual temperatures for the past 20 years,” Malinowski said. “At the same time, you see a decline in mean annual precipitation.
“This is not a favorable climate shift for forage or livestock production. With each one degree rise in temperature, forages need 15 percent more moisture to sustain production.”
Improved cool-season perennial grasses that go dormant during the hottest part of the year, but produce high-quality, nutritious grazing from fall through early spring, could fill a niche in this hotter, dryer climate.
“Our initial research with summer-dormant cool-season perennial grasses taught us they are adapted to our climate and have real forage value,” Malinowski said. “Some of these improved grasses are already being tested on a large scale in North Texas by seed companies and producers.
“Our work with Israel may open the door for the development of new cultivars/varieties that are more adaptable and productive in a wider range of climates and growing conditions.”