Grasses are a nutritious forage for dairy cows, beef cattle, sheep, and bison. And, they provide a ground cover to protect roadsides, populate prairies, and beautify home lawns, golf courses, and athletic fields. Grasses are an ideal perennial crop, pleasing to look at, high in protein and fiber, and nature's best soil stabilizer.
Scientists work on many projects related to grasses, including inventory remnants of native prairie. This patch, a Nature Conservancy reserve on dry soils of the beach ridge of glacial Lake Agassiz in northwestern Minnesota, provides ideal greater prairie chicken habitat. The University and USDA-ARS released improved varieties of Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indiangrass that can be used as warm season forages.
In the early 1880s, U of M agronomists showed farmers that timothy was the best pasture grass for southern Minnesota. An extensive study of sustainable crop rotations between 1900 and 1910 documented that alternating small grains, timothy, red clover, and corn was more profitable than continuous cropping of either corn or a grain. Researchers analyze cropping practices for long-term benefits: to the economy, the environment, and animal health and nutrition. In the 1950s-60s scientists continued to refine pasture management and introduced new crops to the mix, including bromegrass, birdsfoot trefoil, and Kentucky bluegrass. Now, molecular genetics research helps identify specific traits to incorporate into new cultivars.
Agricultural Experiment Station researchers have also developed tools that help producers after the harvest is in, such as an efficient technique for evaluating the chemical composition and digestibility of forages. Near infrared reflectance spectroscopy — NIRS — is now used worldwide to measure grass and legume quality after it is in storage.
If a grass or legume is grown for seed rather than for animal feed or ground cover, it is managed differently. U of M research in the 1940s led to development of a major U.S. grass seed industry in our cool climate near the Canadian border. Here, almost $1.5 million of seed is harvested each year for bird feed, home lawn, golf course, and athletic field use as well as plantings for forage crops. Minnesota ranks fourth nationally in production of grass seed, and U of M plant breeders are introducing new varieties of perennial ryegrass and quackgrass to complement bluegrass used in landscaping.
Forages not consumed fresh are harvested and stored for off-season use by livestock. Minnesota's long winter means more grass is stored as bales, or chopped as silage, than is grazed.
Rotational grazing allows cows access to pasture at its peak nutritional level. Agricultural Experiment Station research at Morris and Grand Rapids documented that this system of frequently moving cows to different pastures provides a more nutritious diet. In addition, it is lower in cost and protects soil and water resources.
Research to protect conservation set-aside acres is shared with farmers and other consumers through an efficient outreach system, the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
Horticultural scientists study specific traits of grasses destined for turf use on golf courses, athletic fields, and home lawns. University breeders recently released MN 184, a creeping bluegrass for golf course greens, tees, and fairways. Compared with bentgrass it has a higher plant population which results in a more upright leaf position that is better for putting. It is ideally suited for northern and coastal climates, and is better adapted to shady conditions. In just a few years MN 184 seed has found its way from coast to coast, including Pebble Beach (left), and courses in Europe. An improved variety, MN 234, will be even more popular, as it does not flower at heights maintained on courses.
The U of M also carries out National Turfgrass Evaluation Trials, helping select the best performing and disease resistant grasses from around the world. Through genetic analysis of biotypes of turf grasses, breeders hope to develop new varieties that will perform optimally in specific growing conditions.