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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

2017 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 research project 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 l: Seed was harvested from crossing two populations of Utah trefoil collected at two locations in southern Utah. These two populations had been identified as being superior for agronomic traits of 20 populations evaluated from Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. This material provides an excellent starting point for developing the first improved germplasm of this species for use in rangeland restoration efforts. Lotus utahensis evaluations were published in Rangeland Ecology and Management during this year. With the retirement of ARS scientists, most of the work in the Mojave Desert has been restricted to collecting establishment data and species composition of plantings made fall 2016. Objective 2: Evaluation and selection continued in populations of native legumes, alfalfa, fine and creeping red fescues, and native and introduced wheatgrasses, wildryes, and interspecific hybrids within the Triticeae, and meadow bromegrass for increased plant establishment, stand persistence, and forage yield, as well as, increased tolerance to heat, salt, and drought all traits necessary to survive in increasingly hot/dry climates in the western U.S. Over 250 accessions of bluebunch wheatgrass were evaluated at two Central Great Basin locations for biomass production, seed production, seed test weight, seed germination, seedling vigor (deep-seeding emergence), and 5- and 10-year persistence and vigor. DNA was obtained from each accession and meta-populations were derived based upon genetic similarity. In addition, environmental data were gathered and associated with the origin of each accession including proposed seed transfer zones. Data were used to compute relative fitness (ability to survive and increase in the next generation) of each accession, each meta-population, and each seed transfer zone in comparison to the overall average and against Anatone. It was discovered that Palouse-types of bluebunch wheatgrass, including the standard Anatone, have the highest fitness in the central Great Basin. These fitness data suggest that continued use of Palouse varieties in reseeding the Great Basin will eventually result in the loss of genetically unique accessions that originate from this region. Therefore, accessions that originate within the central Great Basin (via DNA testing and collection site) were identified and selected. Evaluation of improved Forage and Range Research plant materials in harsh, wildfire burned areas of Nevada and Idaho has identified native and non-native grass and legume species that have potential for improvement of degraded rangelands. Two manuscripts have been published that described the physiological processes associated with salinity tolerance in salt tolerant alfalfa. A third manuscript has been prepared characterizing differences at the molecular level between salt tolerant and non-tolerant material. Objective 3: Populations of Kentucky bluegrass, wheatgrasses, and fine-leaved fescue were selected for turf quality and color under limited irrigation and those plants having such were selected and intercrossed for continued evaluation. Populations of tall fescue, orchardgrass, birdsfoot trefoil were selected for improved pasture forage yield and nutritional quality. Field evaluations to test the effectiveness of forage production in grass-legume mixtures comparing these to chemically fertilized monocultures continued. Eight populations of soft lax-leaved tall fescue have been developed by two cycles of divergent selection. These populations include those selected exclusively for decreased fiber, forage mass, or simultaneous selection of decreased fiber and increased forage mass. Multi-location population and progeny trials are underway to determine the gain from selection and obtain data for a cultivar release. Final selections for seed production were made within birdsfoot trefoil and a foundation seed field has been established. This material has improved persistence under grazing and dry conditions typical of the intermountain western U.S. Released the orchardgrass germplasm USDA-UTWH-102 with increased winter hardiness and established advanced crossing blocks of three elite orchardgrass populations for further selection. Established crossing blocks of advanced turf crested wheatgrass lines for ongoing selection. A manuscript was published describing the increased production associated with including legumes with grasses in mixed pastures and the synergistic effect of tall fescue with birdsfoot trefoil compared to tall fescue with cicer milkvetch, whereas cicer milkvetch mixes well with meadow bromegrass. Objective 4: Unique intermediate and tall wheatgrass populations, developed from intraspecific hybridization for potential as fall and winter forage were evaluated. Collaborative research with Sieben Land and Livestock ranch in Cascade Montana identified a meadow bromegrass, intermediate wheatgrass, small burnet, and alfalfa mixture as most productive for improving a winter forage feeding management of cattle. 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 on the ranch. Objective 5: Continued experimentation 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 has identified unique plants and populations that have potential for rangeland pasture, and turfgrass low-input (water and fertilizer) applications. A whole transcriptome study of Kentucky bluegrass breeding lines tolerant and susceptible to salt stress led to the identification of genes controlling tolerance under salt stress. Bluegrass diploid genome sequences were developed and used to find low ploidy potential ancestors to Kentucky bluegrass and Texas bluegrass that will enhance molecular marker development for salt and drought tolerance. An integrated molecular genetic linkage map was constructed for intermediate wheatgrass. The linkage map 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 allowed the development of a dense genetic map for flowering date in orchardgrass, and studies are ongoing to attach quantitative trait locus (QTL) controlling economically important traits to this map. Freezing evaluations of the orchardgrass lines were established. The association analysis of orchardgrass populations to identify genetic determinants of the late-flowering phenotype was completed. Highly significant single nucleotide polymorphism markers were found to be associated with late heading. Objective 6: Drafts of the Ecological Handbook chapters were completed (due out in 2018). A multiyear study that described different shrub reduction technologies and seedings with improved plant materials was completed. Analyzed vegetation data collected from 8 sites in Utah. Analyzed data collected at 4 study sites to determine the effects of mowing, herbicide, and burning on cheatgrass seed banks and perennial grass establishment. A study was completed that demonstrated shrub reduction leads to greater nitrogen availability on rangelands due to lower uptake by shrub and greater establishment of seeded grasses.


4. Accomplishments
1. Understanding the interactions between plant establishment, soil nutrients, and rangeland restoration. ARS scientists in Logan, Utah, evaluated the responses of invasive weeds to concentrations of nitrogen and phosphate in addition to seasonal patterns of nutrient availability, root growth, and water-use efficiency on rangelands. Plant growth rates depended primarily on nitrogen acquisition from the soil and invasive weeds such as cheatgrass and medusahead acquired nitrogen earlier in the growing season than other rangeland plants. Soil nutrient depletion by invasive annuals prior to active perennial plant growth in the spring, a reduction in seedling establishment and plant growth was observed which resulted in ecosystems switching from a perennial dominated to an annual based ecosystem. Consequences of this are increased wildfire frequency, erosion, and decreased water shed capacity. Grasses, forbs, and shrubs developed far more rapid germination, increased seedling establishment, and plant persistence better synchronized their growth with nitrogen uptake more effectively in the spring. These results have influenced the selection of species used for restoration to include those that mimic invasive annuals through increased spring growth rates and different rooting depths which reduces or eliminates the invasion of weedy annuals in rangelands.

2. Salt and drought tolerant turfgrasses for the dry western U.S. Turfgrass is a $40 billion a year industry in the U.S., but its maintenance is associated with excessive water use. In the western U.S, high quality irrigation water can be restricted, and irrigation is increasingly sourced from saline recycled (effluent) water. ARS scientists in Logan, Utah, have identified turfgrass species and varieties within species that use less water, can thrive under lower quality saline water, and produce sufficient seed for utility in the commercial marketplace. Additionally, recent genomic methods were used to identify genetic and physiological mechanisms that respond to, and cause tolerance to, drought and salt stress. Plant materials identified as drought tolerant maintain green color and function as a turf with 30 to 50 percent less water, while those plant materials identified as salt tolerant can maintain color and function under a two-fold increase in salt content in irrigation water. These plant materials are incorporated into private turf breeding company’s cultivar development efforts and protocols used to screen for salt stress and tolerance in Kentucky bluegrass have been streamlined to include gene expression of water transporting genes.

3. Cold tolerant orchardgrass improves pasture production. Orchardgrass is a productive, nutritious forage that is used worldwide; however, it frequently winter kills and matures too early seasonally to make high nutritional quality grass/alfalfa hay. An ARS multi-disciplinary team of scientists in Logan, Utah, released Utah dryland orchardgrass (UTDG-101) and Utah winter hardy orchardgrass (UTWH-101) plant materials as new gene sources for developing late-maturing orchardgrass while maintaining forage quality and winter tolerance. UTDG-101 possess 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 and UTWH-101 exhibits less winter injury than other orchardgrass cultivars, tall fescue, and perennial ryegrass. These characteristics make UTDG-101 and UTWH-101 important sources of new genetically diverse orchardgrass germplasm for breeding and cultivar release in commercial breeding programs to increase pasture productivity. These plant materials are being utilized by plant breeding programs both public and private within the U.S. and internationally as new gene sources for winter hardy and late maturing orchardgrass development.

4. Enhanced winter grazing through cultivar development and research on tall statured forage kochia. Winter feeding can account for up to 70% of the annual costs of livestock production in the western U.S. These costs can be reduced by extended grazing into the fall and winter, but dormant grasses lack the protein needed for ruminants such as cattle. Forage kochia is a semi-shrub that has been seeded on rangelands for fall and winter forage, and previous research showed that the cultivar 'Immigrant' provided needed protein and reduced winter feed costs by 25 percent; however, it has been limited by poor establishment and short stature. 'Snowstorm' a new forage kochia cultivar was developed and released in 2012 by ARS scientists in Logan, Utah. In field comparisons to Immigrant, Snowstorm was 64 percent taller, produced 68 percent more forage, and had increased protein and digestibility. Snowstorm has quickly impacted private and public rangeland seedings, as evidenced by the Bureau of Land Management exclusively bidding for Snowstorm in the 2016 seed buy, purchasing 4000 pounds valued at $101,500.


Review Publications
Cox, S., Peel, M., Creech, J.E., Waldron, B.L., Ean, J., Zobell, D.R., Miller, R.L., Snyder, D.L. 2017. Forage production of grass-legume binary mixtures on Intermountain Western USA irrigated pastures. Crop Science. 57:1742-1753.
Robins, J.G., Bushman, B.S., Feuerstein, U., Blase, G. 2016. Variation and correlations among European and North American orchardgrass germplasm for herbage yield and nutritive value. Agronomy. 6(4):61. doi:10.3390/agronomy6040061.
Waldron, B.L., Peel, M., Larson, S.R., Mott, I.W., Creech, J.E. 2017. Tall fescue forage mass in a grass-legume mixture: predicted efficiency of indirect selection. Euphytica. 213:67. doi: 10.1007/s10681-017-1856-x.
Peel, M., Ransom, C.V., Mott, I.W. 2014. Natural glyphosate tolerance in sainfoin (onybrychis viciifolia). Crop Science. 53:2275-2282.
Peel, M., Ransom, C.V., Mott, I.W., Waldron, B.L. 2015. Natural glyphosate tolerance in sweetvetch Hedysarum boreale. Crop Science. 55:2368-2376.
Nelson, R.L., Peel, M., Ransom, C.V. 2014. Small burned response to spring and fall postemergence herbicide applications. Weed Technology. 28:168-175.
Noviandi, C.T., Eun, J.S., Peel, M., Waldron, B.L., Min, B.R., Zobell, D.R., Miller, R.L. 2014. Effects of energy supplementation in pasture forages on in vitro ruminal fermentation characteristics in continuous cultures. Professional Animal Scientist. 30:13-22.
Noviandi, C.T., Neal, K., Eun, J.S., Peel, M., Waldron, B.L., Zobell, D.R., Bin, B.R. 2014. Comparison of alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, and cicer milkvetch in combination with 25, 50, or 75% tall fescue in a continuous-culture system. Professional Animal Scientist. 30:23-32.
Leffler, A.J., Monaco, T.A., James, J.J., Sheley, R.L. 2016. Importance of soil and plant community disturbance for establishment of Bromus tectorum in the Intermountain West, U.S. NeoBiota. 30:111-125.
Sriladda, C., Kratsch, H.A., Larson, S.R., Monaco, T.A., Shen, F., Kjelgren, R.K. 2016. Interspecific hybrid of xeric Shepherdia rotundifolia and riparian Shepherdia argentea: description, and traits suitable for low-water urban landscapes. HortScience. 51:822-828.
Hardegree, S.P., Jones, T.A., Roundy, B., Shaw, N., Monaco, T.A. 2016. Assessment of range planting as a conservation practice. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 69:237-247.
Morris, L.R., Monaco, T.A., Blank, R.R., Sheley, R.L. 2016. Cultivation legacies in soils after rehabilitation seeding in the Great Basin, USA. Arid Land Research and Management. 30:362-374.
Jones, T.A. 2016. Notice of release of Turkey Lake germplasm of bottlebrush squirreltail. Native Plant Journal. 17:59-63.
Jones, T.A., Johnson, D.A., Bushman, B.S., Connors, K.J., Smith, R.C. 2016. Seed dormancy mechanisms in basalt milkvetch and western prairie clover. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 69:117-122.
Broadhurst, L.M., Jones, T.A., Smith, F.S., North, T., Guja, L. 2016. Maximizing seed resources for restoration in an uncertain future. Bioscience. 66:73-79.
Jensen, K.B., Yan, X., Larson, S.R., Wang, R., Robins, J.G. 2016. Agronomic genetic diversity in intermediate wheatgrass [Thinopyrum intermedium). Plant Breeding. 135:751-758. https://doi.org/10.1111/pbr.12420.
Robins, J.G., Bushman, B.S. 2016. Notice of release of 'Trailhead II' basin wildrye. Native Plant Journal. 17:273-280.
Robins, J.G., Bushman, B.S., West, M.S. 2017. Effects of selection for seedling vigor on the genetic variation in Leymus cinereus. Rangeland Ecology and Management. doi: 10.1016/j.rama.2017.01.002.
Robins, J.G., Jensen, K.B. 2017. Genotype by environment interaction effects of propagation and defoliation on meadow bromegrass. Crop Science. doi: 10.2135/cropsci2017.02.0072.
Cook, D., Gardner, D.R., Pfister, J.A., Stonecipher, C.A., Robins, J.G., Morgan, J.A. 2017. Effects of elevated CO2 on the swainsonine chemotypes of Astragalus lentiginosus and Astragalus mollissimus. Journal of Chemical Ecology. 43(3):307-316.
Smith, R.C., Waldron, B.L., Creech, J.E., Zobell, R.A., Zobell, D.R. 2016. Forage kochia and Russian wildrye potential for rehabilitating Gardner's saltbush ecosystems degraded by halogeton. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 69:390-398.
Bushman, B.S., Wang, L., Joshi, A., Robins, J.G., Johnson, P.G. 2016. Responses of tolerant and susceptible Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis L.) germplasm to salt stress. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science. 141:449-456.
Joshi, A., Bushman, B.S., Pickett, B., Robbins, M.D., Staub, J.E., Johnson, P. 2016. Phylogenetic relationships among low ploidy Poa species using chloroplast sequences. Genome. doi: 10.1139/gen-2016-0110.
Stettler, J.M., Johnson, D.A., Bushman, B.S., Connors, K.J., Jones, T.A., MacAdam, J.W. 2017. Utah lotus: North American legume for rangeland revegetation in southern Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 70(6):691-699. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rama.2017.06.002.
Stonecipher, C.A., Panter, K.E., Jensen, K.B., Rigby, C.W., Villalba, J.J. 2017. Seeding medusahead-invaded rangeland following mechanical disturbance on the channeled scablands of eastern Washington. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 70:388-395.
Monaco, T.A., Mangold, J., Mealor, B.A., Mealor, R.D., Brown, C. 2017. Downy brome control and impacts on perennial grass abundance: a systematic review spanning 64 years. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 70:396-404.
Fu, G., Dai, X., Symanzik, J., Bushman, B.S. 2017. Quantitative gene-gene and gene-environment mapping for leaf shape variation using tree-based models. New Phytologist. 213:455-469.
Wang, R., Larson, S.R., Jensen, K.B. 2017. Differential transferability of EST-SSR primers developed from diploid species Pseudoroegneria spicata, Thinopyrum bessarabicum, and Th. elongatum. Genome. 60(6):530-536.
Wang, R., Jensen, K.B. 2017. Roegneria alashanica Keng: a species with the StStStYStY genome constitution. Genome. 60(6):546-551.
Larson, S.R., Pearson, C., Jensen, K.B., Jones, T.A., Mott, I.W., Robbins, M.D., Staub, J.E., Waldron, B.L. 2017. Development and testing of cool-season grass species, varieties, and hybrids for biomass feedstock production in western North America. Agronomy. 7(1):3. doi:10.3390/agronomy7010003.
Kantarski, T., Larson, S.R., Zhang, X., Dehaan, L., Anderson, J., Poland, J. 2016. Development of the first consensus genetic map of intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) using genotyping-by-sequencing. Theoretical and Applied Genetics. 130:137-150.
Staub, J.E., Chatterton, N.J., Bushman, B.S., Johnson, D.A., Jones, T.A., Larson, S.R., Monaco, T.A., Robins, J.G. 2016. A history of plant improvement by the USDA-ARS Forage and Range Research Laboratory for rehabilitation of degraded western U.S. rangelands. Rangelands. 38:233-240.