Skip to main content
ARS Home » Pacific West Area » Logan, Utah » Forage and Range Research » Research » Research Project #424214

Research Project: Develop Improved Plant Genetic Resources to Enhance Pasture and Rangeland Productivity in the Semiarid Regions of the Western U.S.

Location: Forage and Range Research

2014 Annual Report

Objective 1: Improve pasture and rangeland management practices and forage nutritional quality through improved genetics for structure/variation, stand establishment, forage quality, nutrient cycling and persistence characteristics for use on disturbed and semi-arid rangelands in the Great Basin and eastern Upper Mojave Desert, through collection, characterization, improvement and evaluation of grass, legume, and forb germplasm. (Objective C.2, NP 215 Action Plan) Objective 2: Develop grass, legume, forbs, and sub-shrub perennial germplasms/cultivars with increased stand establishment and persistence, seed production, and forage yield and quality on dry, harsh disturbed rangelands of the western US. (Objective C.2, NP 215 Action Plan) Objective 3. Develop breeding strategies and improved grass and legume germplasm for use on pastures and turf under low inputs in the Intermountain West. (Objective E.1, F.2, G.1, J.1, NP 215 Action Plan) Objective 4: Identify grass, legume, and sub-shrub species and mixtures that have increased forage biomass and quality for fall and winter grazing on semi-arid rangelands. (Objective A.1, C.2, NP 215 Action Plan) Objective 5: Identify and describe trait inheritance, quantitative trait loci (QTL), and association mapping for rhizome development, fall and winter forage yield and quality, salinity tolerance, winter hardiness, heading and flowering date, turf quality, and selenium and other heavy metal uptake for improved forages using genomic techniques. (Objective C.2, NP 215 Action Plan) Objective 6: Develop integrated management strategies that decrease invasive weed seed banks, increase biodiversity through the establishment of grass, legume, forb mixtures, and develop plant mixtures that reduce wildfires on salt desert and sagebrush shrub lands in the Great Basin. (Objective B.1, NP Action Plan 215)

The semi-arid and arid rangelands and irrigated pastures of the western U.S. provide a broad array of ecosystem services, including livestock forage, a diversity of native plants, pollinators, animals, and recreational activities. Many of these regions are classified as severely disturbed and non-productive. Moreover, based on predicted climate change models for semi-arid regions, environments will become hotter and drier, increasing the already high rate of rangeland and pasture degradation, resulting in the invasion of annual grasses, increasing wildfire frequency, and reducing forage productivity. Thus, in water-limiting environments, there is a need to develop grasses, legumes, and forbs that will establish under drought, compete with invasive weeds, and persist with adequate forage production and quality to meet the needs of wildlife and livestock producers throughout the year. Increasing digestibility in pasture grasses by 1% results in a 3% increase in livestock gains. The Forage and Range Research Lab (FRRL) combines the disciplines of plant breeding, molecular biology, and ecology in conducting experiments to better understand the genetic mechanisms and pathways of seedling establishment, persistence, competition, forage yield and quality, and other abiotic stresses to develop improved plant materials and management practices for use on these western U.S. rangelands and pastures. These plant materials and management strategies will improve sustainability by reducing the impact of wildfires and invasive weeds, improving wildlife habitat, and conserving, restoring, renovating, and reclaiming degraded landscapes.

Progress Report
The Forage and Range Research Laboratory (FRRL) focuses on the development of improved germplasm for rangeland, pasture, and turf applications, and the identification of best management practices for sustainable agriculture in the western U.S. For Objective 1, collections of sideoats gramma, big galleta grass, Utah trefoil, and Lewis flax were made from the Mojave Desert and Great Basin, and laboratory- and field-based evaluations (Utah trefoil, Lewis flax) and intermatings (sideoats gramma) were initiated. For Objective 2, forage evaluation and selection continued to improve wheatgrasses, wildryes, meadow brome, and fine fescues and native legumes for plant establishment, rhizome development, salt tolerance, and persistence in the increasingly hot/dry climates of the Great Basin. Forage kochia was evaluated and selected for its seedling vigor, survival, and seed production to extend grazing under harsh saline conditions in degraded weed-infested rangelands. Progress in Objective 3 was made in the genetic improvement of pasture plants (tall fescue, orchardgrass, birdsfoot trefoil) and turfgrasses (Kentucky bluegrass, wheatgrasses, and fine-leaved fescue) for improved nutrition (pasture) and/or performance (pasture and turf) under low input applications. Field evaluations to test the effectiveness of biomass production in grass-legume mixtures compared to chemically fertilized monocultures were completed. Turfgrass (i.e., bluegrasses, fine fescues, and wheatgrasses) evaluations continued to identify germplasm possessing stress tolerance (i.e., color and growth) under reduced water regimes (50% normal applicaton). For Objective 4, yield and nutritional quality evaluation of meadow bromegrass, orchardgrass, intermediate and tall wheatgrasses in mixes with legumes (e.g., small burnet and alfalfa) to reduce the need to mechanically harvest hay and improve winter forage quality were conducted in Cascade, MT, Cheyenne, WY, and Logan, UT. Significant progress in Objective 5, was made in understanding the genetic and physiological mechanisms responsible for yield and quality-related traits under salt and water stress in wildryes, orchardgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and alfalfa. Molecular marker development, genetic mapping, and assessments of gene expression continued to determine the genetic bases of wheatgrass vegetative growth and regrowth, forage kochia seed viability, alfalfa and bluegrass salt tolerance, and orchardgrass late flowering and carbohydrate accumulation. The genetic map locations of genes controlling late flowering in orchardgrass, rhizome development (spreading) in wildryes, salt tolerance and spreading growth habit in alfalfa, and the accumulation of heavy metals in forage grasses grown on contaminated soils were determined. For Objective 6, data from 700 Utah shrubland sites that have been subjected to various rangeland repair strategies since 1980 were analyzed and used to identify treatments [e.g., shrub cutting, chaining or dragging of rangeland to reduce vegetation, and plant shredding to reduce juniper stands for reduction of shrub dominance (sagebrush and juniper)] to improve animal grazing potential and big game habitat suitability. Landscape scale studies continue that evaluate the interaction between plant establishment and competition of improved plant materials with the invasive weed cheatgrass as affected by mowing, burning, and herbicide applications.

1. Rangeland restoration through improved management strategies. Recent high costs of nitrogen fertilizer and the need for increased environmental stewardship necessitate a renewal of the mixed grass-legume pastures. Grass-legume pastures reduce grower/producer inputs. Historical research provides limited pertinent information needed for improving rotational grazing under current and future management strategies. A USDA-ARS multi-disciplinary team of scientists in Logan, UT evaluated grass-legume mixtures for pastures and determined that tall fescue-birdsfoot trefoil mixtures had equal or higher forage yield, nutritive energy, and steer weight gains than fertilized tall fescue monocultures. This research also demonstrated that tall fescue-birdsfoot trefoil mixtures provide less nitrogen in the form of animal waste (i.e., solid manure and urine) to ground water than grass monocultures, and produced less ammonia-N and methane emissions. Moreover, data indicated that grazing tall fescue and birdsfoot trefoil mixtures can reduce the use of synthetic fertilizer, without lowering forage and livestock production. Thus, the use of grass/legume mixtures in pastures can dramatically reduce production costs and, thus, allow U.S. farmers to be more sustainable and competitive in agricultural markets.

2. Cold tolerant orchardgrass improves pasture production. Orchardgrass is a productive, nutritious forage that is used worldwide in more temperate climates. However, the genetic relationships among commercial cultivars are relatively narrow (i.e., many have similar parentage), making it increasingly difficult to introduce novel cultivars into the marketplace. Plant breeders are interested in introducing late-maturing, winter hardy, and nutritious orchardgrasses that are genetically unrelated so agricultural production will be less susceptible to biotic (e.g., disease) and abiotic (e.g., cold) threats. A USDA-ARS multi-disciplinary team of scientists in Logan, UT released the genetic stock, UTDG-101 orchardgrass, as a new gene source for developing late-maturing orchardgrass while maintaining excellent forage quality and increased winter tolerance. UTDG-101 possesses comparatively greater crude protein, relative feed value, sugars, and other characteristics that make it superior to such cultivars as Benchmark Plus, Potomac, Paiute, and Seco. Additionally, UTDG-101 exhibits less winter injury than other orchardgrass cultivars, tall fescue, and perennial ryegrass cultivars examined. These characteristics make UTDG-101 an important source of new, genetically diverse orchardgrass germplasm for breeding and cultivar release in commercial breeding programs to increase pasture productivity.

3. Hybrid Basin wildrye grass improves rangeland forage production and nutrition. Basin wildrye ranks among the largest native grasses in western North America and can provide useful forage in the early spring growing season. However, its use is limited by its relatively low forage quality and animal palatability when compared to other wildrye and wheatgrasses. In an attempt to increase forage yield and quality, hybrids between basin wildrye and creeping wildrye were developed by a USDA-ARS multi-disciplinary team of scientists in Logan, UT to study the genetic control of these traits and develop improved wildryes for late fall and winter forage. The hybrids produced 36% more forage than did the parents and commercially available wildrye cultivars, and, thus, are gene sources (i.e., genetic stock for use in further breeding) to improve basin wildrye forage yield. This hybrid was used to identify genes and chromosome regions controlling vegetative yield, plant height, flowering, early-season forage quality (protein), and late-season forage quality traits. The molecular tools and progeny derived from this hybrid are being used to improve understanding of the genetic and physiological mechanisms controlling vegetative yield, and fiber, lignin, and protein content. Such information may lead to the development of new low-input perennial grass feedstocks for the western United States.

4. Molecular marker development and application improves prediction of high performance orchardgrass. Orchardgrass breeders want to know how cultivars are related so that they can find unique genetic stocks (i.e., plants that possess yield and/or quality traits not present in commercial cultivars) to make crosses (hybrids) that will result in cultivars having added value and yield. The molecular genetic analysis of a diverse array of North American orchardgrass cultivars by a USDA-ARS multi-disciplinary team of scientists in Logan, UT revealed large genetic differences among the cultivars examined. Thus, cultivars could not be segregated into groups. This was not because orchardgrass cultivars have too little genetic variation, but because they have too much. However, DNA markers were not useful in differentiating all cultivars, and, thus, making predictions of hybrid vigor (i.e., degree of increase in yield and quality) will require breeding for increased uniformity within cultivars. Results also indicated that breeders could use DNA markers to conduct more specific selection among existing genetic stocks to improve the species. Molecular markers were made available for use by private and public orchardgrass breeders to improve selection effectiveness and efficiency to reduce the time required for release of improved cultivars.

Review Publications
Jensen, K.B., Anderson, W.F. 2014. Rangeland and warm-season forage grasses. In: Smith, S., Diers, B., Specht, J., Carver, B., editors. Yield gains in major U.S. field crops. CSSA Special Publications 33. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, Inc., Crop Science Society of America, Inc., and Soil Science Society of America, Inc. p. 219-266.
Leffler, A.J., James, J.J., Monaco, T.A., Sheley, R.L. 2014. A new perspective on trait differences between native and invasive exotic plants. Ecology. 95(2):298-305.
Wang, R., Lu, B. 2014. Biosystematics and evolutionary relationships of perennial Triticeae species revealed by genomic analyses. Journal of Systematics and Evolution. 52:697-705. doi:10.1111/jse.12084.
Dou, Q., Wang, R., Lei, Y., Yu, F., Li, Y., Wang, H. 2013. Genome analysis of 7 Kengyilia (Triticeae Poaceae) species with FISH and GISH. Genome. 56:641-649.
Mujeeb-Kazi, A., Kazi, A.G., Dundas, I., Rasheed, A., Bux, H., Chen, P., Wang, R., Xu, S.S., Mahmood, T. 2013. Genetic diversity for wheat improvement as a conduit to food security. Advances in Agronomy. 122:179-258.
Deng, C.L., Bai, L.L., Fu, S.L., Yin, W.B., Zhang, Y.X., Chen, Y.H., Wang, R., Zhang, X.Q., Han, F.P., Hu, Z.M. 2013. Microdissection and chromosome painting of the alien chromosome in an addition line of wheat-Thinopyrum intermedium. PLoS One. 8(8):e72564. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0072564.
Mukherjee, J.R., Jones, T.A., Monaco, T.A. 2013. Biomass and defoliation tolerance of 12 populations of Pseudoroegneria spicata at two densities. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 66:706-713.
Jones, T.A., Parsons, M.C., Larson, S.R., Mott, I.W. 2014. Notice of release of Antelope Creek and Pleasant Valley germplasms of bottlebrush squirreltail. Native Plant Journal. 15:57-64.
Jones, T.A. 2014. Ecologically appropriate plant materials for functional restoration of rangelands. Journal of Sustainable Forestry. 33:93-103.
Johnson, D.A., Bushman, B.S., Jones, T.A., Bhattarai, K. 2012. Identifying geographically based metapopulations for development of plant materials indigenous to rangeland ecosystems of the western USA. Progress in Botany. 74:265-291.
Johnson, P.G., Johnson, D.A., Connors, K.J. 2013. Evaluation of Chinese and Kyrgyzstan grass germplasm collections for maintenance of green cover under limited irrigation in western North America. International Turfgrass Society Research Journal. 12:305-318.
Jensen, K.B., P. Harrison, N.J. Chatterton, B.S. Bushman, J.E. Creech. 2014. Seasonal trends in nonstructural carbohydrates in cool- and warm- season grasses. Crop Science. 54:1-13.
Morris, L.R., Monaco, T.A., Sheley, R.L. 2014. Impact of cultivation legacies on rehabilitation seedings and native species re-establishment in Great Basin desert shrublands. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 67:285-291.
Ali, A., Yang, E., Staub, J.E., Chung, S. 2014. Putative paternal factors controlling chilling tolerance in Korean market-type cucumber (Cucumis sativus L.). Scientia Horticulturae. 167:145-148.
Ali, A., Yang, E., Bang, S., Chung, S., Staub, J.E. 2014. Assessment of chilling injury and molecular marker analysis in cucumber cultivars (Cucumis sativus L.). Korean Society of Horticulture Science Journal. 32:227-234.
Ma, Y., Staub, J.E., Robbins, M.D., Johnson, P.G., Larson, S.R. 2013. Genetic characterization of Kyrgyzstan fine-leaved Festuca valesiaca germplasm for use in semi-arid low-maintenance turf applications. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. 61:185-197.
Gordon, V.S., Staub, J.E. 2013. Backcross introgression of plastomic factors controlling chilling tolerance into elite cucumber (Cucumis sativus L.) germplasm: Early generation recovery of recurrent parent phenotytpe. Euphytica. 195:217-234.
Yun, L., Larson, S.R., Mott, I.W., Jensen, K.B., Staub, J.E. 2014. Genetic control of rhizomes and genomic localization of a major-effect growth habit QTL in perennial wildrye. Molecular Genetics and Genomics. 289:383-397.
Larson, S.R., Jensen, K.B., Robins, J.G., Waldron, B.L. 2014. Genes and quantitative trait loci controlling biomass yield and forage quality traits in perennial wildrye. Crop Science. 54:111-126.
Svejcar, A.J., Boyd, C.S., Davies, K.W., Madsen, M.D., Bates, J.D., Sheley, R.L., Marlow, C., Bohnert, D., Borman, M., Mata-Gonzalez, R., Buckhouse, J., Stringham, T., Perryman, B., Swanson, S., Tate, K., George, M., Ruyle, G., Roundy, B., Call, C., Jensen, K.B., Launchbaugh, K., Gearhart, A., Vermeire, L.T., Tanaka, J., Derner, J.D., Frasier, G.W., Havstad, K.M. 2014. Western land managers will need all available tools for adapting to climate change, including grazing: A critique of Beschta et al. Environmental Management. 53:1035-1038. DOI: 10.1007/s00267-013-0218-2.
Jones, T.A. 2013. When local isn't best. Evolutionary Applications. 6:1109-1118.
Robins, J.G., Escribano, S. 2014. Phenotypic performance of timothy accessions under irrigated and non-irrigated conditions. Crop Science. 54:1079-1086.
Robins, J.G., Xie, W., Escribano, S., Bushman, B.S., Zhang, X. 2014. Cultivar x binary mixture interaction effect on agronomic traits in orchardgrass. Grassland Science. 60:104-111.
Creech, C.F., Waldron, B.L., Ransom, C.V., Zobell, D.R., Creech, J.E. 2013. Factors influencing the field germination of forage kochia. Crop Science. 53:2201-2208.