The five research components of the Rangeland, Pasture, and Forages (RPF) National Program listed below extend from how to manage ecosystems in a sustainable manner to understanding the genetic composition of individual species. Given this broad scope, the RPF National Program is highly interdisciplinary and looks to other ARS national programs to help ensure that the right mix of skills, tools, and methods are used to achieve RPF research objectives. National programs playing a significant role are Food Animal Production; Plant, Microbial & Insect Genetic Resources, Genomics & Genetic Improvement; Crop Protection & Quarantine; and the other six national programs in the Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems program area.
Ecosystems and their Sustainable Management. Ecosystems consist of biological communities together with their physical environments and are characterized by complex interactions among living organisms, such as competition with animals and other plants and between organisms and the nonliving environment, such as climatic events or fire. This complexity, in turn, hinders development of general approaches to the management issues faced by producers and other stakeholders on range, pasture, and forage lands. Development of sustainable and economical approaches to managing these ecosystems requires a better understanding of how climate, soils, organisms, and disturbances influence vegetative structure and flows of energy and materials between living and nonliving components
Plant Resources. The productivity of rangeland, pasture, and forage cropping areas depends directly on the plants that grow there. Besides providing food for livestock, these plants have other uses such as turf, biofuel, and human nutrition and medicine. They also serve as buffer zones near rivers and streams and other conservation purposes. Through close cooperation with other national programs, the genetic diversity of range and forage grasses, legumes, and other forbs needs to be collected and preserved. Although conventional plant breeding methods will be important in improving plant resources, new molecular biology approaches are needed to identify specific useful genes that can be manipulated to create new genetic combinations in plants. These plants will be able to overcome limitations to their growth and development, produce high quality forage, and serve a variety of conservation and other uses.
Forage Management. Harvested and conserved forages provide an indirect source of nutrients for human consumption. Managing this renewable resource involves a series of complex and interacting factors to establish, sustain, harvest, conserve, test, and utilize forages intended for animal consumption. Understanding how these factors interact is crucial in maintaining high animal productivity throughout the year. However, each of these steps is inefficient. Nutrient losses during the conservation of hay or silage are estimated at $3 to 5 billion annually. ARS research will identify new technologies needed to reduce losses at each step and improve the quality and quantity of conserved forages available for livestock.
Grazing Management: Livestock Production and the Environment. Properly managed livestock grazing can be an economically and ecologically sustainable use of most rangeland and pasture resources. On sites where grazing is appropriate, livestock management requires an ecological understanding of associated effects on resource values and attributes such as species diversity, water quality and quantity, and recreation and aesthetics. Livestock grazing impacts on water quality, for example, are a major concern in the management of our Nation's rangelands and pastures. New technologies are needed to mitigate grazing effects on all of these associated resources. Grazing management also requires a greater understanding of animal capabilities, husbandry needs, and grazing behavior. Managing intensive grazing systems for forage-finishing of livestock and dairy production requires increased efficiency in nutrient use, particularly nitrogen, and may require the breeding of animals with different characteristics to take full advantage of alternative forage resources. ARS research, through a highly interdisciplinary program involving close cooperation with other national programs, will evaluate grazing impacts in different environments and will develop management practices and assessment and monitoring techniques required for sustained livestock production from these grazing lands.
Integrated Management of Weeds and Other Pests. Invasive and noxious weeds, poisonous plants, and destructive insects reduce rangeland and pasture quality in the U.S. Invasive and noxious weeds are expected to infest 140 million acres by the year 2010. Poisonous plants negatively impact livestock performance and reproduction. Insect pests consume as much as 25% of the forage produced and spread plant diseases. These plant and insect pests threaten the economic vitality of animal-based agricultural operations. An integrated pest management approach optimizes control of these pests. Such approaches developed in cooperation with other national programs involve the use of multiple strategies to keep pest damage below economically unfavorable levels while minimizing hazards to humans, animals, plants, and the environment. Integrated pest management emphasizes rangeland and pasture ecosystem function rather than the pest or a particular method of pest control and reduces reliance on any one method of pest management, i.e., chemical, fire, mechanical, or biological. The goals are to make rangeland, pasture, and forage management systems ecologically and economically sustainable by using integrated pest management strategies and to transfer this technology to land managers and agricultural producers.