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Cattle graze a native grass pasture in Montgomery County, Tennessee, consisting of big bluestem and indiangrass, similar to the novel systems UTIA researchers will create through the NIFA grant. Photo by Rebekah Norman, UT Extension agent and county director, Montgomery County, Tennessee.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture have been awarded nearly $500,000 from the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to improve the productivity, resiliency, and overall health of Eastern grasslands.

While grasslands make up the largest agricultural land use in the US, there is room to improve their productivity and ability to remain vigorous during drought and heat.

Pat Keyser, a professor of forestry, wildlife, and fisheries who also directs the UTIA Center for Native Grasslands Management, is working with colleagues to change the overall health of these ecosystems by studying novel grassland systems across the Eastern US.

The problem lies with tall fescue, Schedonorus arundinaceus. This species of grass is a go-to candidate for many farmers and ranchers who need to provide forage for cattle. Native to Europe, tall fescue is a cool-season grass that experiences what many producers call a summer slump. During hot months growth slows a great deal and productivity is limited. When the grass cannot replenish itself enough to keep up with grazing pressure, it becomes overgrazed and stressed. Pastures become degraded as root systems are weakened.

Additionally, tall fescue hosts a fungal endophyte—an organism that lives within the plant through at least part of its life cycle—that can cause a myriad of health problems when consumed by cattle or other livestock. Common issues include weight fluctuations, digestive and reproductive problems, and reduced milk production.

Through the grant, Keyser and his colleagues will implement large-scale field experiments at three locations: the UT East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, the University of Missouri’s Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus, Missouri, and the Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center in Booneville, Arkansas. Each site will host tall fescue as well as native warm-season grasses such as big bluestem and indiangrass blends or Eastern gamagrass. Evaluations of the systems will determine how areas with warm-season grasses compare to the traditional use of tall fescue. In particular, the researchers will evaluate productivity, profitability, sustainability, animal health, and ecosystem health.

“Innovation has been the lifeblood of modern agriculture,” Keyser said. “This research explores a major opportunity to innovate our approach to managing Eastern grasslands for cattle production. While producing more pounds of beef at a lower cost is a key measure of success, we also want to evaluate how this innovation can affect soil health, water quality—really, all of our natural resources.”

Over the three-year grant period, the researchers will test their hypothesis that the novel grazing systems will improve beef production, soil and water quality, and overall process sustainability.

The Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries is part of the Herbert College of Agriculture, UT AgResearch, and UT Extension at the UT Institute of Agriculture. The department’s curricula focus on a mastery learning approach emphasizing practical hands-on experiences. Faculty, staff, and students conduct research and provide extension services that advance the science and sustainable management of natural resources.

CONTACT

Kristy Keel-Blackmon (865-974-8342, kristyak@utk.edu)