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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

2015 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. Objective 1: Collections of sideoats gramma, big galleta grass, and rushy milkvetch were made from the Mojave Desert and Great Basin, and laboratory (DNA analysis)- and field-based (morphological) evaluations of collections (sideoats gramma, big galleta grass, Utah trefoil, and Lewis flax) were continued and intermatings were made among sideoats grama and big galleta collections for use in rehabilitation of the Mojave. Objective 2: Evaluation and selection continued to improve native legumes, alfalfa, fine fescues, and both native and introduced wheatgrasses and wildryes for plant establishment, rhizome development, salt tolerance, and persistence in the increasingly hot/dry climates of the Great Basin. Forage kochia was evaluated and found to establish and compete on halogeton-dominated saline rangelands, whereas, the displaced native Gardner saltbush did not establish or persist. It was determined that breeding for salt tolerance in alfalfa successfully improved its performance in saline environments, but changed plant morphology and reduced its performance in non-saline conditions. A new thickspike wheatgrass cultivar was released with improved seed production and seedling establishment. Three germplasms of native legumes were released and provide unique seed sources and planting guidelines for their use in rangeland restoration. A new meadow bromegrass ‘Arsenal’ that was selected for forage yield and nutritional quality under limited to no-irrigation was released and is expected to provide farmers/ranchers with additional options for high quality forage. Objective 3: Progress 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 forage yield and quality (pasture) and quality and color (turf) under limited irrigation. Field evaluations to test the effectiveness of forage production in grass-legume mixtures compared to chemically fertilized monocultures were completed. Turfgrass (i.e., bluegrasses, fine fescues, and wheatgrasses) germplasm with improved drought or salt tolerance was selected under reduced water regimes. Objective 4: Work continues to develop and evaluate meadow bromegrass, intermediate and tall wheatgrasses for fall and winter forage. Based on fall forage yield and quality, populations of meadow bromegrass, intermediate and tall wheatgrass were advanced for continued improvement. In a collaborative study located at the Sieben Land and Livestock ranch, Cascade, Montana, meadow bromegrass, intermediate wheatgrass, small burnet, and alfalfa mixtures were examined as 1,009 cows were grazed for two days on a 33-acres in February of 2015. Based on an animal’s consumption estimate of 30 lbs of forage a day, 30,270 lbs of forage were grazed each day for a total of 60,540 lbs (~ 30 tons of forage consumed). Given these estimates, the rancher estimated that he saved nearly $1,800 over the two days of grazing compared to the purchase of hay. Objective 5: Significant progress 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, alfalfa, and fine fescue. Molecular marker development, genetic mapping, assessments of gene expression, and elucidation of physiological mechanisms continued to determine the bases of wheatgrass vegetative growth and regrowth, alfalfa and bluegrass salt tolerance, orchardgrass late flowering and carbohydrate accumulation, spreading-type growth habit of alfalfa, and fine fescue yield and quality. Genes and chromosome regions associated with potentially toxic accumulations of arsenic, cadmium, copper, molybdenum, lead, and zinc in native perennial grasses grown on soil from an EPA Superfund site in Montana were identified. Objective 6: Three specific studies were initiated using the Utah Land Treatment database that was created by FRRL scientists in conjunction with project cooperators. First, the influence of three conifer reduction treatments influence seeding success and recovery on herbaceous vegetation were assessed on 68 sites (pinyon and juniper). Second, three shrub reduction treatments were studied to determine how they alter plant community succession and assist the establishment of 16 improved FRRL plant materials on 99 sagebrush sites. Lastly, after compiling a complete dataset (1982-2013), analysis of wildfire-impacted areas was initiated to determine how different ecological sites recover from disturbance and respond to post-fire seeding efforts.

1. Drought tolerant meadow bromegrass improves rangeland production. Even though there is increasing interest in utilizing less productive agricultural lands (i.e., associated with increased drought, soil salinity, and low fertility) for grazing in the western U.S., it is difficult to establish grasses in these harsh environments. Thus, there is a critical need for winter hardy, early maturing grasses that establish rapidly and provide highly nutritional forage on western U.S. semiarid rangelands and non-irrigated pastures. However, ARS researchers at Logan, Utah, released a drought tolerant, winter hardy meadow bromegrass cultivar Arsenal. On rangelands receiving between 250 (9.5 inches) to 450 (17.7 inches) mm of annual precipitation, Arsenal had 32% more seedlings establish than did meadow bromegrass cultivars Cache and Regar. Under similar conditions, Arsenal averaged 14, 66, and 5% increase in forage production over cultivars Cache, Regar, and MacBeth. Spring forage crude protein and digestibility were 17 and 12% greater than Cache and fiber 6% lower. Arsenal (Plant Variety Protection No. 201500355) expands the use of meadow bromegrass from irrigated pastures to nonirrigated pastures and rangelands with =250 mm annual precipitation, providing livestock producers with high-yielding nutritious forage where less nutritious and lower yielding grasses were typically used.

2. Thickspike wheatgrass with improved seedling establishment and seed yield. Restoration of degraded landscapes, including frequent fires, in the western U.S. is costly and labor intensive. Native thickspike wheatgrass is a popular rangeland restoration species. However, its comparatively poor seedling establishment and seed production characteristics have limited its commercialization and use in rangeland restoration. ARS scientists at Logan, Utah, developed and released Bannock II thickspike wheatgrass. Bannock II had 23, 73, 94, 95, and 98% more seedlings established on rangelands of the Great Basin than cultivars Bannock, Schendimar, Critana, Sodar, and Elbee. Bannock II produced 17, 129, and 185% more seeds than Bannock, Critana, and Sodar. Its improved seed yield lowers commercial production costs and its improved stand establishment characteristics enhance its restoration utility.

3. Adaptation of bluebunch wheatgrass to low-precipitation zones improves rangeland restoration on the Columbia Plateau, Washington. There is a need for native grass species that can be utilized for restoration of degraded landscapes in drought-prone regions of the western U.S. Perennial native bluebunch wheatgrass is broadly adapted to differing ecological habitats, and is an important forage for livestock and native wildlife. Nevertheless, drought tolerant commercial bluebunch wheatgrass adapted specifically to Columbia Plateau and other nearby regions (i.e., Level III Ecoregion 10) in eastern Washington has not been previously identified and developed for commercial use. ARS scientists at the Forage and Range Research Unit in Logan, Utah, released a pre-variety bluebunch wheatgrass germplasm designated as Columbia, which originated from a dry site [250 mm (9.8 inches)] on the Columbia Plateau region in Adams County, Washington, which contrasts dramatically from other similar germplasm releases originating from wetter sites {i.e., Anatone [504 mm (19.8 inches, Whitmar [549 mm (21.6 inches)], and Goldar [598 mm (23.5 inches)]}. Seedling establishment and biomass production of Columbia is improved over these commercial germplasms as demonstrated in harsh dry trail sites at Malta Idaho and Nephi Utah, and was, thus, released for use in the Columbia Plateau region to improve rangeland productivity.

4. Native forbs improve rangeland biodiversity and pollinator efficiency on semiarid western U.S. rangelands. There is a critical need for forb species to provide greater biodiversity, food, and habitat resources for native pollinators, birds (including sage-grouse), and wildlife in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau Regions of the western U.S. However, few commercial seed sources of North American forbs are available for revegetation/restoration of degraded western rangelands adapted to precipitation zones having less than 350 mm (13.8 inches) annual precipitation, and those that are available come from wildland-collected seed. The amount of time and resources necessary to make wildland collections in quantity results in high seed prices and variable seed quality, such that forbs have been under-represented in rangeland seeding mixes. Thus, ARS scientists at Logan, Utah, released pre-variety germplasms of native Searl’s prairie clover designated as Fanny, Bonneville, and Carmel for commercial use in rangeland restoration. These germplasms are adapted to differing habitats with variable annual precipitations {i.e., Bonneville [178 mm (7.0 inches)], Fanny [321 mm (12.6 inches), and Carmel [347 mm (13.6 inches)]}, and provide a genetically diverse array of Searl’s prairie clover genotypes that biologically fix nitrogen as well as provide high quality food for wildlife and native pollinators. This germplasm represents the first commercially available seed source for use in rangeland restoration.

Review Publications
Zhu, L., Johnson, D.A., Wang, W., Ma, L., Rong, Y. 2015. Grazing effects on carbon fluxes in a northern China grassland. Journal of Arid Environments. 114:41-48.
Deng, C.L., Bai, L.L., Li, S.F., Zhang, Y.X., Li, X., Chen, Y.H., Wang, R., Han, F.P., Hu, Z.M. 2014. DOP-PCR-based chromosome painting of rye (Secale cereale) and wheat-rye hybrid 1R and 1RS chromosomes. Genome. 57:473-479.
Rong, Y., Yuan, F., Johnson, D.A. 2014. Addition of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) to lamb diets enhances production and profits in northern China. Livestock Research for Rural Development. 26:224.
Asjad, A., Bang, S.W., Chung, S., Staub, J.E. 2014. Plant transformation via pollen tube-mediated gene transfer. Plant Molecular Biology Reporter. 33:742-747.
Yun, L., Larson, S.R., Jensen, K.B., Staub, J.E., Grossl, P.R. 2015. Genes and quantitative trait loci (QTL) controlling trace element concentrations in perennial grasses grown on phytotoxic soil contaminated with heavy metals. Plant and Soil. doi: 10.1007/s11104-015-2583-5.
Jensen, K.B., Robins, J.G., Bushman, B.S., Johnson, D.A., Stratton, S.D., Heaton, K. 2014. UTDG -101, a late-maturing orchardgrass germplasm with increased winter hardiness and forage quality. Journal of Plant Registrations. 8:318-323.
Jensen, K.B., Singh, D., Bushman, B.S., Robins, J.G. 2015. Registration of Arsenal meadow bromegrass. Journal of Plant Registrations. 9:304-310
Jones, T.A., Monaco, T.A., Rigby, C.W. 2015. The potential of novel native plant materials for the restoration of novel ecosystems. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. doi: 10.12952/journal.elementa.000047.
Wang, R., Larson, S.R., Jensen, K.B., Bushman, B.S., Dehaan, L.R., Wang, S., Yan, X. 2015. Genome evolution of intermediate wheatgrass as revealed by EST-SSR markers developed from its three progenitor diploid species. Genome. 58:63-70.
Staub, J.E., Robbins, M.D., Ma, Y., Johnson, P.G. 2014. Phenotypic and genotypic analysis of a U.S. native fine-leaved Festuca population portends its potential use for low-input urban landscapes. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science. 139:706-715.
Hirsch, M.C., Monaco, T.A., Call, C.A., Sheley, R.L. 2014. Large-scale downy brome treatments alter plant-soil relationships and promote perennial grasses in salt desert shrublands. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 67:255-265.
Xie, W., Bushman, B.S., Ma, Y., West, M.S., Robins, J.G., Michaels, L.A., Jensen, K.B., Zhang, X., Casler, M.D., Stratton, S.D. 2014. Genetic diversity and variation in North American orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata L.) cultivars and breeding lines. Grassland Science. 60:185-193.
Pearson, C.H., Larson, S.R., Keske, C.M., Jensen, K.B. 2015. Native grasses for biomass production at high elevations. In: Cruz, V.M.Z., and Dierig, D.A., editors. Industrial Crops Breeding for Bioenergy and Bioproducts. New York, NY:Springer. p. 101-132.
Robins, J.G., Bushman, B.S., Jensen, K.B., Escribano, S., Blaser, G. 2014. Genetic variation for dry matter yield, forage quality, and seed traits among the half-sib progency of nine orchardgrass germplasm. Crop Science. 55:275-283.
Leffler, A.J., James, J.J., Monaco, T.A., Sheley, R.L. 2015. A new perspective on trait differences between native and invasive exotic plants: reply to critique. Ecology. 96(4):1152-1153.
Sriladda, C., Kjelgren, R., Kratsch, H., Larson, S.R., Monaco, T.A. 2014. Ecological adaptation of Shepherdia rotundifolia to conditions in its native range. Western North American Naturalist. 74:79-91.
Robins, J.G., Bushman, B.S., Escribano, S., Jensen, K.B. 2015. Heterosis for protein, digestibility, fiber, and water soluble carbohydrates in nine sources of orchardgrass germplasm. Euphytica. 204:503-511.
Li, X., Alarcon-Zuniga, B., Kang, J., Tahir, M., Jiang, Q., Wei, Y., Reyno, R., Robins, J.G., Brummer, E. 2015. Mapping fall dormancy and winter injury in tetraploid alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.). Crop Science. 55:1-17.
Monaco, T.A., Leffler, A.J., James, J.J. 2012. Differences in nitrogen uptake capacity between native and invasive grasses is dependent on temperature. Oecologia. 171:51-60.
Morris, L.R., Monaco, T.A., Call, C.A., Sheley, R.L., Ralphs, M.H. 2011. Implementing ecologically based invasive plant management: Lessons from a century of demonstration projects in Park Valley, Utah. Rangelands. 33:2-9.
Vogel, K.P., Mitchell, R., Waldron, B.L., Haferkamp, M.R., Berdahl, J.D., Erickson, G., Klopfenstein, T. 2014. Registration of 'Newell' Smooth Bromegrass. Journal of Plant Registrations. 9:35-40.