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Pastures with More Plant Species Show Better Productivity

21 July 2016

US - Newly-published long-term research shows multispecies pastures show promise for productivity and drought tolerant improvements.

R. Howard Skinner, a physiological plant ecologist and member of the USDA-ARS-Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, has been looking into how to increase the amount of forage pastures can grow. 

Previous studies suggest incorporating multiple types of plants in pastures is an effective way to increase the amount of forage. However, these studies varied in length.

To look at the long-term effects of diversity in pastures, Mr Skinner studied the progress of fields for nine years.

Mr Skinner and his team at Pennsylvania State University Hawbecker Farm planted eight experimental paddocks. They planted four paddocks with orchard grass and white clover. Another four paddocks had a combination of chicory, orchardgrass, tall fescue, white clover, and alfalfa. When the plants reached a certain height, cows grazed in the paddocks.

Whilst he expected some of the species from the more complex mixture to disappear over time, what he didn't expect was the continued superior performance of the five-species mixture even after some of the species disappeared.

"Initially I would have thought the loss of species from the more complex mixture was a negative, but this research suggests that by improving soil conditions, specifically soil organic matter, the initial inclusion of multiple species had a long-lasting positive effect even after species differences had disappeared."

The five-species mixture produced, on average over the nine years, 31 per cent more forage than the two-species mixture. This could be because the five-species mixtures were also storing more carbon in the soil than the two-species mixtures, which also means the soil would store more water, helping to protect against drought.

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