Selecting and evaluating native forage mixtures for the mixed grass prairie
Diverse native seed mixtures have many benefits for prairie restoration or seeded pastures. In natural grasslands, species naturally coexist with hundreds of other species in complex communities. Commercial seed mixtures rarely contain more than a small number of species, often with haphazard ratios of the component species. Thus there is no natural template for combining selected species into an optimally productive community and there is limited knowledge on how to compose a suitable species mixture. Identifying which features of a community drive increased productivity may aid in screening species and community compositions, leading to mixtures that are more specifically designed to be stable, and highly productive for the region. There is renewed interest native species as they have the potential to provide non-invasive, productive, and drought resistant rangelands that may prove more sustainable. Seven species with high agronomic potential and a broad native geographic distribution were selected for testing including: nodding brome [Bromus anomalus (Coult.)], blue bunch wheatgrass [Pseudoregneria spicata (Pursh)], western wheatgrass [Pascopyrum smithii (Rydb.)], side oats grama [Bouteloua curtipendula (Michx.)], little blue stem [Schizachyrium scoparium (Michx.)], purple prairie clover [Dalea purpurea (Vent.)], and white prairie clover [Dalea candida (Willd.)]. The early productivity and nutritional quality of these species was determined in simple mixtures in two field sites: Saskatoon and Swift Current. In the field sites the mixtures included all seven monocultures, 21 two-species mixtures and a mixture with all species. Productivity may be driven by the species richness, functional group richness, and species evenness of the community, the abundance and occurrence of particular species or functional groups, and average plant trait values within the community. Therefore, identifying the features of a community that drive increased productivity and applying them as predictive tools may aid in screening species and community compositions. Many complex mixtures of the species were planted in greenhouse experiments to determine the strongest drivers of productivity for communities of these species. The experimental approach was validated in a confirmatory experiment where optimum communities were tested. These results did not differ under a moderate drought treatment. Results were generally consistent between field and greenhouse studies. Western wheatgrass (WWG) had the highest overall plant density and the strongest effect on the forage yield of the mixtures and communities. In the field study, productivity and crude protein content were not reduced when other species were also included with WWG in the mixture. Dalea spp. did not establish as well as the other species, but had the highest crude protein concentrations. The strongest predictors of productivity were the presence and abundance of perennial C3 grasses. Increases in species richness, functional group richness, and the presence of C3s (more specifically western wheatgrass) also increased productivity, likely because of the high early relative growth rate and strong competitive ability of western wheatgrass. Overall, communities screened in the greenhouse reflected early establishment field results. The systematic approach for evaluating communities can be modified to consider enhancing other ecological functions in addition to high productivity, in other regions.
Forage sward, forage yield, functional groups, grass-legume mixture, mixed-grass prairie, native rangeland, agronomic mixtures, diversity effect, forage yield, overyielding, restoration communities, predictive model
Master of Science (M.Sc.)