Dual purpose value of perennial forage grain for food and feed focus of a new study
Maintaining beef cattle on pasture in the fall/winter season using a variety of different grazing strategies is common practice in western Canada. Yet there can be challenges with late season grazing in terms of providing sufficient nutrients to meet cattle performance needs, requiring supplementation with other feedstuffs which increases both feed and labour costs.
Drs. Emma McGeough and Doug Cattani at the University of Manitoba are leading a first-of-its-kind study on the perennial grain intermediate wheatgrass (IWG) as a dual-purpose crop to provide both a cash food grain crop and high-quality forage regrowth for grazing cattle into the late fall and early winter.
“This is new territory,” acknowledges McGeough, assistant professor in sustainable grasslands/livestock production systems, Department of Animal Science. “This crop offers the possibility of growing both grains for human consumption and high-quality forage for grazing in a single growing season on the same piece of land multiple years in a row from a single planting.”
In recent years IWG has gained a lot of attention from food processors and consumers alike – particularly in the United States where it was developed – because of the novelty and environmental benefits associated with its being a perennial grain. “Yet IWG was initially brought into western Canada as forage to produce hay,” says Cattani, assistant professor in perennial crop breeding, Department of Plant Science.
Cattani has been selecting prairie-hardy IWG germplasm for consistent performance through a variety of weather conditions since joining the university in 2011. Over this time he has developed seed selected for producing high-quality grain protein and strong yields –seed that will be used in this study.
Agronomic research in Canada has shown IWG to be highly adaptable to the prairies, being able to withstand cold, drought and excess moisture, sometimes all in a single growing season. It also has the potential to provide a much needed high-quality alternative forage for late fall/early winter grazing. Cattani’s preliminary analyses of forage regrowth nutritional quality indicate it might be suitable for meeting the requirements of a range of cattle classes. “This is especially important for classes of cattle such as backgrounders or bred heifers that have higher requirements than cows,” notes McGeough.
This three-year project will encompass assessments of agronomic and cattle performance, grain and forage quality, environmental sustainability indicators such as enteric methane emissions, nitrogen and carbon cycling, ecosystem services in terms of songbird and nesting waterfowl habitat, greenhouse gas footprinting, as well as the economic potential of the combined IWG-based crop-livestock system.
The data gathered from this project will provide novel information on the value of IWG under western Canadian growing conditions and offer beef producers an alternative option to help cope with the challenges that arise from conventional annual and perennial forages, such as lower feed quality and the need for synthetic fertilizer inputs for late fall/early winter cattle grazing.
“We anticipate there will be soil, environmental and ecological benefits with this dual-use approach,” says Cattani. “But there will also need to be economic benefits for this to be a feasible strategy for beef producers.”
The economic analysis will assess the profitability of IWG-based crop-livestock production systems accounting for both the grain and cattle productivity components. “The more integrated that producers can get by being able to harvest a commodity crop and feed cattle at the same time is a novel opportunity to capture additional economic rewards from a single land area,” says McGeough.
As a provincial mandate exists in Manitoba to grow the beef cattle population, this project will provide industry stakeholders with science-based data on an alternative beef production strategy to help achieve this goal and remain competitive.
THE RESEARCH TEAM
McGeough and Cattani are part of a diverse, multi-disciplinary research team with the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Livestock and the Environment that includes Kim Ominski, professor in forage/beef production systems, Derek Brewin, professor in economics and agri-business and Francis Zvomuya, professor in soil science. Also part of the research team are Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researchers Roland Kröbel, Aaron Glenn and Mae Elsinger, University of Saskatchewan forage breeding and genetics professor Bill Biligetu, Jim DeVries with Ducks Unlimited Canada, and ecologist Tim Crews with the Lands Institute in Kansas. Additional supporting partners include Manitoba Beef Producers, Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association and Manitoba Agriculture.
Crystal Chan is an undergraduate student at the U of M, completing her final semester of a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. She has been working as a Research Assistant with the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment since October 2018. In her short time with NCLE she has gained valuable insight into current research within Agriculture and its importance for producers, the public, and the environment. Combining her passion for science and her caring nature, she plans to pursue a career in medicine.