The grass can be greener

Breeding better forages is Bruce Coulman’s passion and the veteran U of S scientist knows the vital role they play in healthy ecosystems and feeding the world.

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Photo by David Stobbe

Critics contend livestock, especially cattle, use land that could produce food. What’s your response?

Beef cattle get about 80 per cent of their nutrients from forages, much of it perennial forage grown on land not suited for crop production. Land planted to a perennial cover increases organic matter in the soil, and prevents both soil and water erosion.

Our natural grasslands here were once grazed by vast herds of bison and evolved under grazing. You can overgraze, but well-managed grazing is actually beneficial to the ecosystem.

New forage cultivars play a role in that and you have developed more than 20 new cultivars. Please talk about one.

One is hybrid brome grass, created from two brome species. Smooth brome is a good hay species, producing most of its growth in spring and early summer. Meadow brome doesn’t have the high productivity of smooth brome early in the season but regrows well. They’re fairly closely related, so can be crossed, but it took many years of selection to produce productive hybrids. The first crosses were actually made in the late 1970s. In 2000 we released the first dual-purpose variety of hybrid brome and then a second one in 2003, and these have been very popular with producers. They can take a first cut of hay and then later graze those fields.

The gains from new forage varieties are often quite small, but a perennial forage crop lasts many years. If a new variety gives a 5 per cent productivity increase, you get that 5 per cent increase every year. So over time, the gains become quite significant.

Grasslands cover about 25 per cent of the land on the planet and 70 per cent of agricultural land. You’ve come to know one grassland on the other side of the globe very well, haven’t you?

I started teaching forage crop production at the Inner Mongolia Agriculture University in 2002. Since then I’ve been there every year but one. Inner Mongolia is about the size of Saskatchewan and Alberta put together, and about 70 per cent is grasslands.

The number of livestock—cattle, sheep, cashmere goats—has increased greatly over the past 25 years. This has led to some serious overgrazing and degradation and erosion, even to the point of desertification. This is a big issue because in Beijing, which isn’t that far away, dust storms in the spring are fairly common.

All this has led to restricted spring grazing on some land, and other areas have been closed off and the herders resettled. This is no small deal. Not only do you ruin the livelihoods of many small herders, but you have serious ecological consequences from not managing grazing lands properly. Part of the response has been to plant billions and billions of trees, but in the drier areas there never were trees, so there’s concern the water table may be drawn down and this effort may fail.

However, there’s also been an effort to manage the resource better through things like fencing off land and implementing rotational grazing. Producers are being encouraged to produce hay, partly by using high-yielding species. Hay is important as a feed source in the winter, but especially in the spring when native grasses are just starting to grow and can be really damaged if you graze them then.

Does this play into a larger issue, namely feeding a global population heading towards nine billion people?

Yes. China has a growing economy and greater affluence, and that means there’s more demand for meat and milk. This demand is going to increase in China and elsewhere, but there is not going to be any great increase in land for agriculture of any sort. So to meet the demand for animal products, we have to get more productivity from agricultural land, and that includes improving the quantity and quality of feed.

Food security is the goal of another project in Ethiopia you are involved with.

The collaboration with Hawassa University started in 1997, funded by a series of International Development Research Centre (and other federal government) grants. Initially, it was about capacity building by creating graduate programs, but about 10 years ago the focus shifted, specifically to pulse production.

Southern Ethiopia has a rainy season in spring, summer, and fall, and then a dry season in late fall and winter. The main crops are wheat, corn and a cereal called teff, and after harvest the land is left idle until the next spring. But chickpeas can grow on the residual moisture after the main crop is harvested—and because it is a legume, it adds nitrogen to the soil.

As well, including pulses in people’s diets helps prevent the malnutrition and stunting in children we see in that region. So there have been programs to educate Ethiopians on how to cook and use chickpeas and other pulses, and promote their use.

Now we’re trying to scale this up, with the goal of getting 70,000 farmers to grow pulses. I’ve previously been involved on the scientific advisory board of this project, but my new role is more focused on project management.

So you are involved in food security efforts both on the crops and forage side. Do you think people appreciate the importance of the latter, particularly when it comes to forage breeding?

The simple answer is no, and this is precisely why we’ve seen budgets for forage breeding slashed over the years, not just in Canada but elsewhere. We have about 15 forage researchers in Canada now — about 30 per cent of what we had in the 1980s. I quite expected that when I retired, I wouldn’t be replaced with another forage breeder.

But in recent years, we’ve seen more funding. The Beef Cattle Research Council has increased its funding for forage research and so has Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund. And in May 2014, the university hired Bill Biligetu as a forage breeder. So I’ll be turning the program over to him.

Can forage breeding make a difference in the lives of people?

In an indirect way, yes. Improving the productivity and quality of forage through breeding will lead to more livestock production. This will increase the availability of nutritious meat and milk for the world’s population.