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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

2016 Annual Report


1a. Objectives (from AD-416):
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)


1b. Approach (from AD-416):
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.


3. Progress Report:
The Forage and Range Research Laboratory (FRRL) has six objectives, all of which fall under National Program 215, Component 5.1. "Develop and transfer economically viable and environmentally protective production and conservation practices, technologies, plant materials, and integrated management strategies." Progress on this project 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: Morphology and/or genetic diversity of collections of sideoats (SO) and big galleta (BG) grasses, and rushy milkvetch (RV) were made in the Mojave Desert and Great Basin during 2012-014 (e.g., DNA assessment of SO and BG) or continued in 2015-2016 (e.g., morphological assessment of SO, BG, and RV). Hybrids made from selected sideoats and big galleta collections were transplanted at Mojave Desert and Logan, Utah research sites for observation and selection, and an increase of BG was made in preparation for continued evaluation directed towards germplasm release in 3 to 5 years. Objective 2: Evaluation and selection continued in populations of native legumes, alfalfa, fine and creeping red fescues, prairie junegrass, and native and introduced wheatgrasses and wildryes, and meadow bromegrass for increased plant establishment, stand persistence, and forage yield, as well as, increased tolerance to heat, salt, and drought, which are traits necessary to survive in increasingly hot/dry climates in the western U.S. A two-year comparative analysis was completed that assessed forage quality in crested wheat grass, forage kochia, small burnet, cicer milkvetch, and alfalfa for winter forage quality. Data indicate that legumes cicer milkvetch and small burnet maintain digestible fiber into November below 50% and 45%, respectively, and that protein into January in these legumes is typically above 11% and 10%, respectively. In Great Basin growing environments, these values exceeded those of alfalfa and wheatgrass indicating their potential value for winter forage to reduce livestock feeding costs. A five-year study to identify plant materials adapted to increased competition from invasive grasses such as cheatgrass and adaptations to fluctuations in temperature and precipitation was completed on semi-arid range sites near Beaver and Tintic, Utah, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Malta, Idaho. Overall seedling establishment ranged from 28 to 70% seedling frequency at Tintic, Utah and Malta, Idaho, respectively. Although different species performed differently at various locations, four species (Siberian wheatgrass, crested wheatgrass, intermediate wheatgrass and Snake River wheatgrass) established better than the other grasses examined. In general, newer varieties possessed increased establishment compared to the older varieties. These results can assist land managers in making informed decisions concerning the choice of plant materials for revegetation projects as related to potential seedling establishment and stand persistence. Evaluation of improved FRRL plant materials in harsh, wildfire burned areas of Nevada has also identified native and non-native grass and legume species that have potential for improvement of degraded rangelands. Objective 3: Populations of tall fescue, orchardgrass, birdsfoot trefoil (irrigated pasture) and Kentucky bluegrass, wheatgrasses, and fine-leaved fescue (turf-grass) were selected for improved forage yield and quality (pasture) and quality and color (turf) under limited irrigation. Field evaluations continue to test the effectiveness of forage production in grass-legume mixtures comparing these to chemically fertilized monocultures. Turfgrass germplasm (i.e., bluegrasses, fine fescues, and wheatgrasses) were evaluated for drought and salt tolerance, and those plants having such were selected and intercrossed for continued progeny evaluation. The development of molecular markers in Kentucky bluegrass provides tools to quickly identify hybrids and measure the level of uniformity within the progeny. Thus, the FRRL continues to develop such tools to enhance the efficiency of selection for increased drought tolerance in this species. Objective 4: Continued evaluation and development (hybridization of exceptional plants) led to progress in the formation of unique intermediate and tall wheatgrass populations for further evaluation to identify plants having potential to improve rangeland fall and winter forage. A drought tolerant meadow bromegrass population was released that possesses improved forage yield and quality. Collaborative research with Sieben Land and Livestock ranch in Cascade Montana continues for the identification of a productive meadow bromegrass, intermediate wheatgrass, small burnet, and afalfa mixture for improvements in winter forage feeding management of cattle. Early results indicate that planting a mixture of intermediate wheatgrass and meadow brome more than doubled the forage yield and subsequent animal carrying capacity compared to the native range and orchardgrass/alfalfa mix typically used as winter forage. Another study evaluated the success of inter-seeding forage kochia into established wheatgrass stands, and measured the effect on forage mass, forage nutritive value, and grazing value as fall and winter forage. Forage kochia was successfully established using a two-pass chisel plow treatment to increase crude protein of the forage [8.8% compared to 4.5% for non-treated Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)] leading to increased stocking rate (1.6 Animal Unit Months (AUM)/acre compared to 0.5 AUM and for non-treated CRP) and grazing value (net return of $46.98/acre compared to $18.80 for non-treated CRP). Thus, inter-seeding of forage kochia into established CRP acreage can increase the potential for fall and winter grazing by livestock in the Great Basin. Objective 5: Experimentation continues to understand 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. This research has identified unique plants and populations that have potential for rangeland, pasture, and turgrass low-input (water and fertilizer) applications. An integrated molecular genetic linkage map was constructed for intermediate wheatgrass. This linkage map provides a cornerstone for assembly of the USDOE-funded genome sequencing project that has identified regions of the genome responsible for vegetative regrowth, grain production, and biomass-related traits of this widely adapted and highly productive perennial grass. In another series of studies, use of genotype-by-sequencing DNA technologies has allowed for the development of a dense genetic map identifying flowering date in orchardgrass. Studies are also ongoing to define and locate quantitative trait loci (QTL) controlling other economically important traits on this map, which will provide further elucidation of major genes contributing to this economically important trait. Additionally, a whole transcriptome study of Kentucky bluegrass breeding lines expression of tolerant and susceptible to salt stress led to the identification of genes controlling tolerance under salt stress. Objective 6: Wildfire resilient perennial shrubs and grasses are used in greenstrips to control fire spread and reduce its negative ecological impact. Progress continues to define improved fire resilient grasses (wheatgrasses and fescue grasses) and shurbs (forage kochia) that act to reduce wildfire spread. Genetically improved shrub and grass combinations were subjected to simulated wildfire pressure in 2015 and evaluated in 2016 at two Great Basin locations. Some grasses (fine-leaved fescue and wheatgrasses) were identified that regrew after the fire treatment. In another study, a fine-leaved fescue grass was identified that remained green (fire resilient) throughout the summer season, and, thus, has potential for greenstrip applications. Additionally, a meta-analysis (comprehensive) was conducted on cheatgrass control treatments and shrub reduction methodologies, and an analysis was performed to determine the effects of mowing, herbicide, and burning on cheatgrass seed banks and perennial grass establishment. These analyses identified new management techniques and/or improved existing management practices for restoration of degraded sagebrush communities depending on their ecological site history.


4. Accomplishments
1. Improved crested wheatgrass improves rangeland productivity. There is a need to provide improved plant materials to enhance rangeland productivity on harsh (low annual precipitation) sites in the western U.S. Crested wheat grass cultivar ForageCrest was released by ARS scientists in Logan, Utah, to improve productivity on rangelands receiving 200 to 300 mm (8-12 inches) of annual precipitation. ForageCrest will establish and persist over time providing adequate dry-matter yields with nutritional characteristics similar to or greater than current crested wheatgrass cultivars used in the Intermountain West, Great Basin and Northern Great Plains Regions of the western U.S. ForageCrest seedlings do not spread beyond original plantings, and do not cross with native species. ForageCrest resists the spread of invasive annual weed species such as cheatgrass, and medusahead rye because it germinates earlier and grows more rapidly at colder temperatures than other perennial grasses. Moreover, when inter-seeded into native stands, ForageCrest co-exists with native grasses, forbs, and shrubs.

2. Native slender wheatgrass possesses improved rangeland stand establishment charateristics. Vast areas of semi-arid rangelands in the western U.S., particularly in the Great Basin, are severely disturbed, frequently burned, increasingly eroded, and subsequently infested with troublesome weeds such as cheatgrass, and medusahead rye. In such areas of limited annual precipitation, native grasses are more difficult to establish, less productive and persistent, and less defoliation-tolerant under severe water stress than their introduced counterparts. Thus, it is critical to develop native grasses that can be seeded onto these disturbed harsh range sites that are competitive against invasive weeds, easy to establish, persistent, with increased seed yield. Slender wheatgrass is a native, self-pollinating, short-lived, early serial, perennial species that colonizes degraded landscapes. Because of its abundant rhizome (underground plant stem), ARS scientists at Logan, Utah, released Charleston Peak slender wheatgrass germplasm as an improved alternative to current slender wheatgrass cultivars (e.g., FirstStrike, Revenue, Pryor, and San Luis) for conservation (erosion control) and re-vegetation (reclamation) plantings on arid and semi-arid rangelands for the Great Basin and Intermountain Regions of western U.S. for erosion control and reclamation. Charleston Peak germplasm is adapted to elevations ranging from 1,385 m (4,500 ft) to 3,692 m (12,000 ft), prefers loams and sandy loams, and can tolerate salinity ranges from 1 to 16 milliZMhos per centimeter (mmhos cm-1), where it is surpassed in this trait only by tall wheatgrass.

3. Improved native basin wildrye germinates rapidly to improved stand establishment. Many areas of the western U.S. have been severely degraded by human disturbance, wildfires, and the invasion of weedy annual plant species (e.g., cheatgrass, medusahead rye). Thus, there is a need to identify and cultivate plant materials that establish and persist on degraded landscapes. Relatively tall (3 to 6 feet) Basin wildrye grass is ideal for providing wind protection in winter calving pastures, holds its nutrient value well at maturity (7-8% protein), and can withstand heavy grazing and trampling in its dormant state. Moreover, as a bunch type grass, basin wildrye is well adapted to stabilizing disturbed soils, is drought tolerant, possesses a fibrous root system, and has adequate seedling vigor in areas receiving 8 to 20 inches of annual precipitation. These characteristics make it a desirable plant material for reclamation. ARS scientists at Logan, Utah, released Trailhead II basin wildrye because of its improved stand establishment potential (rapid emergence), which enhances the success of conservation and re-vegetation plantings in the Intermountain West and Northern Great Plains areas of the United States.

4. First release of native Thurber's needlegrass increases rangeland biodiversity. As a result of large-scale planting of non-native grasses (i.e., crested wheatgrass) in the early part of the 19th Century, many western U.S. landscapes have decreased in biodiversity. There is a need to increase the genetic diversity of such regions during landscape revegetation after disturbances (e.g., wildfire and human disturbance) by seeding native grass and legume species. For instance, native Thurber’s needlegrass is a densely tufted bunchgrass (12 to 24 inches tall)that provides valuable forage for livestock and wildlife. This grass is found in the semiarid Intermountain West from southern Idaho to Washington's Columbia Basin and south to eastern California and northern Nevada and Utah in association with juniper, sagebrush, saltbush, horsebrush, bitterbrush, winterfat, Sandberg bluegrass, Indian ricegrass, bluebunch wheatgrass and thickspike wheatgrass plant communities. However, this species is not commercially available, and therefore, ARS scientists at Logan, Utah, released Princeton Thurber’s needlegrass germplasm for revegetation of degraded sites.


5. Significant Activities that Support Special Target Populations:
ARS scientists at Logan, Utah, hosted Utah State University (USU)-Blanding Native American Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Mentorship Program 2016 for minority students for a week (May 16-20) as mentors in the area of plant genetics and genomics. During the week-long program, ARS scientists provided instruction in the areas of plant breeding and management of rangeland, pasture, and turf. The students visited research plots, ranches, seed companies, and Utah State University facilities, where instruction was given in pollination techniques, ranch management strategies, laboratory techniques in DNA technologies, and the operations of seed production and processing. Students received hands-on experiences that allowed them to discover aspects of agriculture that were exciting and thought-provoking. ARS scientists at Logan, Utah, hosted a 2016 Washington Carver Fellowship minority participant from Beltsville, Maryland, between June 4-August 1, 2016. The participant learned laboratory and field techniques to enhance high school education and was able to see career opportunities in the agricultural sciences, especially in the area of turf grass genetics and breeding. Participant was schooled in various DNA technologies, breeding techniques, and data collection and analysis. Additionally, participant received training in soil analysis and associated wet chemistries. In the field, participant was given training in turf grass quality assessment (e.g., color, texture) as data were collected on research plots and at a Utah-based private sod company experimental plot.


Review Publications
Anower, M.R., Boe, A., Auger, D., Mott, I.W., Peel, M., Wu, Y. 2015. Comparative drought response in eleven diverse alfalfa accessions. Journal of Agronomy and Crop Science. doi: 10.1111/jac.12156.
Wang, Z., Johnson, D.A., Rong, Y., Wang, K. 2016. Grazing effects on soil characteristics and vegetation of grassland in northern China. Solid Earth. 7:55-65.
Mott, I.W., Cook, D., Lee, S.T., Stonecipher, C.A., Panter, K.E. 2016. Phylogenetic examination of two chemotypes of Lupinus leucophyllus. Biochemical Systematics and Ecology. 65:57-65.
Namhui, K., Oh, J., Kim, B., Choi, E., Hwang, U., Staub, J.E., Chung, S., Park, Y. 2015. The gene CmACS-7 provides sequence variation for the development of DNA markers associated with monoecious sex expresion in melon (Cucumis melo L.). Korean Society of Horticulture Science Journal. 56:535-545.
Jones, T.A., Mott, I.W. 2016. Notice of release of Columbia Germplasm of bluebunch wheatgrass. Native Plant Journal. 17:53-58.
Anower, M.R., Fennell, A., Boe, A., Mott, I.W., Peel, M., Wu, Y. 2016. Physiological and molecular characterization of lucerne (Medicago sativa L.) germplasm with improved seedling freezing tolerance. Crop and Pasture Science. 67:655-665.
Chivers, I.H., Jones, T.A., Broadhurst, L.M., Larson, S.R., Mott, I.W. 2016. The merits of artificial selection for the development of restoration-ready plant materials of native perennial grasses. Restoration Ecology. 24:174-183.
Robbins, M.D., Staub, J.E., Bushman, B.S. 2016. Development of fine-leaved Festuca grass populations identified genetic resources having potential for improved forage production and wildfire control in the western United States. Euphytica. doi: 10.1007/s10681-016-1644-z.
Hwang, J., Oh, J., Kim, Z., Staub, J.E., Chung, S., Park, Y. 2015. Fine genetic mapping of a locus controlling short internode length in melon (Cucumis melo L.). Molecular Breeding. doi: 10.1007/S.11032-014-0088-1.
Staub, J.E., Gordon, V.S., Simon, P.W., Wehner, T.C. 2015. Chilling tolerant U.S. processing cucumber (Cucumis sativus L.): three advanced backcross and ten inbred backcross lines. HortScience. 50:1252-1254.
Johnson, D.A., Bushman, B.S., Connors, K.J., Bhattarai, K., Jones, T.A., Jensen, K.B., Parr, S.D., Eldredge, E.P. 2015. Notice of release of Fanny Germplasm, Carmel Germplasm, and Bonneville Germplasm Searls' prairie clover: Selected class of natural germplasm. Native Plant Journal. 16:265-275.
Bushman, B.S., Johnson, D.A., Connors, K.J., Jones, T.A. 2015. Germination and seedling emergence of three western North American rangeland legumes. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 68:501-506.
Rong, Y., Ma, L., Johnson, D.A. 2015. Methane uptake by four land-use types in the agro-pastoral region of northern China. Atmospheric Environment. 116:12-21.
Rong, Y., Ma, L., Johnson, D.A., Yuan, F. 2015. Soil respiration patterns for four major land-use types of the agro-pastoral region of northern China. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 213:142-150.
Rong, Y., Li, H., Johnson, D.A. 2016. Germination response of Apocynum venetum seeds to temperature and water potential. Journal of Applied Botany. 88:202-208.
Jensen, K.B., Larson, S.R., Bushman, B.S., Robins, J.G. 2016. Notice of release of Charleston Peak Germplasm: selected class, genetically manipulated track pre-variety germplasm. Native Plant Journal. 17:127-133.
Jensen, K.B., Robins, J.G., Rigby, C.W., Waldron, B.L. 2016. Comparative trends in forage nutritional quality across the growing season in thirteen grasses. Canadian Journal of Plant Science. doi: 10.1139/cjps2015-3208.
Robins, J.G., Jensen, K.B., Bushman, B.S. 2015. Notice of release of 'Bannock II' thickspike wheatgrass. Native Plant Journal. 16:259-264.
Bushman, B.S., Amundsen, K.L., Warnke, S.E., Robins, J.G., Johnson, P.G. 2016. Transcriptome profiling of Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis L.) accessions in response to salt stress. BMC Genomics. 17:48. doi: 10.1186/s12864-016-2379-x.
Carlsen, M., Fu, G., Bushman, B.S., Corcoran, C. 2015. An integrated approach to exploit linkage disequilibrium for ultra high dimensional genome-wide data. PLoS Genetics. 202:411-426.
Dehaan, L.R., Van Tassel, D.L., Anderson, J.A., Asselin, S.R., Barnes, R., Baute, G.J., Cattani, D.J., Culman, S.W., Dorn, K.M., Hulke, B.S., Kantar, M., Larson, S., Marks, M.D., Miller, A.J., Poland, J., Ravetta, D.A., Rude, E., Ryan, M.R., Wyse, D., Zhang, X. 2016. A pipeline strategy for grain crop domestication. Crop Science. 56:917-930.
Robins, J.G. 2016. Evaluation of warm-season grass nutritive value as an alternative to cool-season grass under limited irrigation in the semi-arid western United States. Grassland Science. 62:144-150.
Robins, J.G., Lovatt, J.A. 2015. Cultivar by environment effects of perennial ryegrass cultivars selected for high water soluble carbohydrates managed under differing precipitation levels. Euphytica. 208:571-581.