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Researchers explore how native plants provide cattle producers with plenty of benefits

Posted on June 28, 2022 by Sunny South News
Bison Paddock: A short 7 minute driver from Waterton National Parks is a short loop where bison graze and roam in the fescue grasslands. Photo by Erika Mathieu.

By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News

A research team at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Swift Current Research and Development Centre are working with native, perennial forage plants with a history of resilience in surviving harsh or extreme elements of prairie climates to determine how reintroducing these species into grasslands can benefit cattle producers and the environment. According to AAFC, this research seeks to, “increase yields and nutritional quality of native perennial forage species through plant breeding, as well as to improve pasture, forage and grazing management techniques.”

Additionally, the research will create a framework which, “provide(s) a new feed opportunity for cattle producers,” while also benefitting the Canadian grasslands, which are, “one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world,” according to the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Sean Asselin.

Dr. Asselin explained, “in natural ecosystems, there’s always a renewal of species over time due to different disturbance events” such as grazing and trampling, by bison or cattle, for example. “Fire events (also) promote renewal,” and are considered a disturbance event.

“In systems where we don’t have these disturbances events; if we have a number of different species and they’re all competing against each other for limited resources, over time, one species may become dominant, and if there is not any way, of knocking that species, back, through fire or grazing and trampling, we start to lose biodiversity because all the other species start getting crowded out. There’s no environmental niche for them to be there.”

In cases of unusual frost or wildfires, disease or insect/pest infestation, specific species may be targeted, and if there is only one species on the landscape, “well, you’re done,” said Dr. Asseline.

“If you have multiple species and they have different characteristics, some will continue to be productive. Others may be set back, so that’s kind of the idea behind that promoting biodiversity is that we know that having species with different functions and ecosystems.”

Although the idea of (re)-introducing something that was once native can seem a bit counterintuitive, the history of how non-native species came to be commonplace is a result of a combination of social, political, and environmental factors, which according to Dr. Asselin, date back over the last 150 years. Dr. Asselin explained part of the issue was grasses introduced from Europe were being overgrazed and due to the intensity of the grazing during seasons which were not productive times for grass, leading to degradation of the rangeland. “The practices that work in Europe didn’t necessarily work here,” noted Dr. Asselin.

“Native forage production and native rangeland use was the original food source for cattle producers in North America,” and added differences between management practices by settlers and Indigenous farming practices were a factor in shifting techniques over time. Another major factor relates to the history of wheats and tilling of the land which contributed to a “reduction of native grasslands across western Canada.” This reduction was largely due to the grain demands exacerbated by events such as WWI, which prompted Canadian producers to focus on domestic grain production since international sources were impacted by the ongoing conflict in Europe. Following the war, domestic cereal and grain production continued and farmers faced an extreme drought cycle in the 1930s, which in combination with the removal of native, “deep-rooted” species resulted in extremely fragile topsoil highly susceptible to damage and an overall reduction in native prairie.

 “The major reason that the introduced species were brought in was because they were available commercially. There was seed production in Europe occurring for species like crested wheatgrass and smooth brome. So those were available to come here in Canada to be seeded. There wasn’t any domestic market for native seed at that time.” Subsequently, these factors resulted in, “a need to reestablish materials on the land and perennials, but the major source of seed was foreign seed sources.”

 Asselin explained, “It’s not so much that they that these introduced species had particular traits which made them more beneficial for forage production.”

 Although the native prairie species have benefits in their ability to persist in harsh or extreme environments, Asselin said there are some challenges as well, “They are completely wild. They are really good at persisting, but may make it harder to establish or to harvest seeds,” and added the challenge extends when trying to produce the seeds at a commercial scale as well.

 “Part of my program is looking at traits that we can improve upon to make it easier to work with native species, as well as reduce any risk involved with seeding native species,” while still also, “maintaining the diversity and keeping the traits that you would need for them to survive time in a range land situation.”

Modern-day producers often rely on non-native species to feed their cattle. But given the history of plains bison in western Canadian grasslands, exploring how native species could benefit both producers and the environment is an integral part of Dr. Asselin’s team’s research project. The team’s findings will help shed light on how cattle producers can create more sustainable and cost-effective operations, while increasing the efficiency of their feed. The native forage plants offer a new feed opportunity for cattle producers, in addition to the numerous environmental benefits. Dr. Asselin said, “the major cost savings would be in a rangeland system, if it is managed appropriately, it is a renewing, self-regenerating system so it’s not as reliant on external inputs (such as herbicide or nitrogen for example). like a high production monoculture system would be.” He added the reduction in chemical inputs and overall, “less dependence on externalities,” offers an attractive cost-saving potential in addition to the numerous ecological benefits.

 This research is timely given the uncertainty of the extent of how climate change will impact us in the coming years. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with our need of range lands under climate change,” Dr. Asselin explained, adding, “we don’t know if the individual species within those range lands, (are) actually going to be able to adapt. Or if new materials going to come in, or if they have the necessary genetic diversity to withstand something like prolonged drought.”

Dr. Asselin is the only breeder of native forages at AAFC, and is exploring how the genetics of these species interact with the environment. “Ultimately, Dr. Asselin’s team hopes to develop seed sources that can be as broadly adopted as possible, while also maintaining the genetic diversity of materials.”

To learn more about the Dr. Asselin’s research, visit https://agriculture.canada.ca/en/news-agriculture-and-agri-food-canada/scientific-achievements-agriculture/benefitting-cattle-producers-and-environment-value-native-forages.

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