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Giving birth to new native grasses

Forages: News Roundup from the November 2017 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Native forage breeders at Swift Current Research and Development Centre spend their careers attempting to capture and transfer the diversity of native forages into new composite varieties that offer better health and productivity than the originals.

“It takes multiple years to identify what we want and then make sure that a characteristic we are highlighting isn’t a one-off because of the growing year,” explains program lead Mike Schellenberg, who is looking forward to having a new forage plant breeder on board to help advance some of the most promising native forages for grazing and reclamation.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada currently holds the rights to native plant material collected by Ducks Unlimited across the Prairies in the early 2000s, and other native and introduced species added since then.

They work collaboratively with other AAFC research centres and the Universities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Development of a new variety begins by growing out material from all collections of a species to create a base population. Next, the researchers select and propagate the best plants for natural crossings in a greenhouse and in the field. Once they have their potential progeny lines in sufficient quantity they are grown outdoors in comparative trials. When all this material is collected and analyzed they select the best progeny line to register as a variety, produce the breeder seed and licence it to a foundation seed grower or company for commercial production.

The best line, in this case, is determined by scoring each line for seedling and regrowth vigour, plant health, biomass and seed yield. A single index based on correlations between these characteristics has been developed to compare the value of selected progeny lines to the original population.

During the comparative study phase, they assess additional characteristics such as feed quality, drought tolerance and winter hardiness.

Another part of the work is developing a fact sheet with agronomic tips for producers to have ready when a variety is released.

The “Winterfat — packed with protein for fall and winter grazing” fact sheet is available online as Schellenberg works through the process of registering a winterfat variety. He hopes to soon put out a call to license it to a grower who can start producing seed on a commercial scale in 2018. (Canadian Cattlemen, April 2015).

The project to improve overall yield of purple prairie clover and white prairie clover has advanced to the seed-increase stage in preparation for their comparative studies. Both are warm-season perennial legumes offering excellent protein and digestibility throughout the growing season coupled with high levels of condensed tannins that safeguard animals from bloat.

A bluebunch wheatgrass, known for its drought tolerance and as a season-long producer, is at a similar stage of development.

Sometimes it’s a matter of screening out unwanted characteristics from the original, which has been the priority for improving Canadian milkvetch. Low-toxicity selections are now in the seed-increase stage prior to moving forward with the comparative study. This low-bloat native legume from the pea family offers advantages similar to its tame counterpart, cicer milkvetch, so the key for producers will be to plant it at an appropriate rate in a mix, Schellenberg adds.

On the other hand, slender milkvetch was the last plant grazed by cattle during the preference trial, yet its quality is very similar to alfalfa. A chemical analysis is next in line to try to identify why animals don’t like this drought-tolerant species.

The nurseries for initial screening of American vetch and sweet vetch germplasm struggled through an extremely dry growing season in 2017. Further evaluation will be necessary to screen for drought tolerance in combination with forage quality and yield.

Some of these native forages may be available from suppliers in Canada and the U.S.; however, Schellenberg cautions producers to find out where the wild seed was collected because it may not be adapted to northern climates, and to ask for a current germination test. Stored seed can lose its viability fairly quickly.

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