Forage and pasture research ramping up in Ontario with new faculty and facilities
By Lilian Schaer for Livestock Research Innovation Corporation
Forage and pasture research at the University of Guelph is kicking into high gear. The new beef research facilities at Elora include both renovation of existing pastures and expansion of pastureland capacity from 160 to approximately 400 acres.
And early last year, Kim Schneider joined the Department of Plant Agriculture as Assistant Professor in Forage and Service Crops with a focus on three broad research areas: the role of perennial forages in carbon sequestration, fertility trials, and annual forage options for producers.
“I’m most excited about looking at the potential for perennial forages to help offset greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration - there is a lot of potential there with grazing management and also fertility management,” says Schneider. “We don’t have a lot of data in Ontario about how management of perennial pastures influences soil carbon capture or understanding the quality of soil organic matter - if we can demonstrate this in Ontario, there will be greater uptake.”
She’s also interested in how different forage species and mixtures perform under different fertility management regimes. Fertility work in Ontario forage species hasn’t been widely completed since the 1980s, and many new varieties have been developed since then. The goal, says Schneider, is to be more nutrient use efficient, especially with phosphorus, in an effort to minimize impacts on water quality.
“Another part of my job is looking at annual forages and what options there are for producers if they need to extend the grazing season - what annuals could be more drought resilient or can we link livestock farmers with growers with cover crops that could be grazed for greater crop-livestock integration?” she adds.
Although not from a farm, Schneider comes to her new role with a long-time interest in sustainable agriculture and the interaction between environmental issues and agriculture.
She earned her master’s at Guelph in Earth Sciences and went on to complete a PhD, also at Guelph, in Soil Science where she worked on Ontario dairy farms looking at nutrient cycling and phosphorus availability of alfalfa and grass-hay mixes. As a grad student, she also completed a research exchange in Switzerland, a country where grazing cattle is an important part of the national landscape.
“As part of my research I looked at the benefits provided by forage and service crops to the agri-ecosystem, how they can improve crop and soil quality, and increase carbon sequestration and nutrient cycling,” she says. “I’ve always been learning as I go and I’m still learning.”
Schneider now has a variety of forage-focused research projects underway. One of them involves evaluating grazing management practices with beef producers at six locations across southwestern Ontario, a project funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC).
The goal is to compare adaptive multi-paddock grazing with continuous grazing and looking at the quality and quantity of carbon in the soil, as well as the levels of glomalin, a protein known to be linked with carbon sequestration, produced by mycorrhizal fungi. She will also be looking at fungal to bacterial ratios and using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (what she likens to an MRI for the soil) to evaluate how soil organic matter quality characteristics are changing.
As part of the three-year project, Schneider and her team are also working in collaboration with Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle of the School of Environmental Sciences. Wagner-Riddle has funding from Beef Farmers of Ontario to look at soil carbon in annual crops, pasture and native woodlot and Schneider is hoping to sample at the same locations.
Schneider has an agronomic project underway at the Elora Research Station looking at three different fertility regimes for different pure and mixed forage crops. BFO is providing some funding, and Schneider has applied for additional funding from NSERC and the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance (formerly the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)-University of Guelph partnership).
“This will provide interesting info about the range of mixtures available on the market and how they yield, what their quality is, and what their cost of production will be,” she says.
The second part of the project will look more specifically at alfalfa, red clover, timothy, tall fescue, and orchard grass in monocultures and mixtures to determine optimal fertilizer levels.
Schneider is also starting a two-year annual forage project at Elora with six different mixtures planted in one of the pastures at the research station for yield evaluation, and in another project, she is working with OMAFRA beef specialist James Byrne and forage and grazing specialist Christine O’Reilly to use a rising plate meter tool to estimate forage biomass.
“The idea is for it to be a tool to help producers gauge when their pasture is ready for grazing, when to pull animals out and how to increase overall pasture utilization efficiency,” she says. “With the increased attention focused on soil health, forages and livestock, it’s a really exciting time to be working in this field.”
This article is provided by Livestock Research Innovation Corporation as part of LRIC’s ongoing efforts to drive innovation in livestock production. It was published in the August 2021 edition of Ontario Beef.