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Improving Grassland Profitability In The Mid-continental USA By Breeding For Improved Forage Digestibility: Lessons Learned And Applications To South American Grasslands

Kenneth Paul Vogel, Cesar Heraclides Behling Miranda

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In the early 1970's research was initiated by the cooperative USDA-ARS and University of Nebraska grass breeding program to develop perennial grasses adapted to the mid-continental USA with improved forage quality. The initial breeding and animal evaluation work focused on switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) but has since expanded to several other warm-and cool-season perennial grasses. The in vitro dry matter digestibility (IVDMD) test was selected as the measure of forage quality that was used in the breeding work because of its previous successful application on improving bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon). In all of the grass species that we have studied to date, there is genetic variability for IVDMD and forage yield. IVDMD is a heritable trait with narrow sense heritability's ranging from 0.2 to 0.4 which are similar to heritability's for forage yield. If significant improvements or difference in IVDMD (> 1%) can be detected in small plot trials (r=6), differences in cattle gains among experimental strains or cultivars can be demonstrated in grazing trials. Averaged over both cool- and warm-season grasses, a 1% increase in in vitro dry matter digestibility (IVDMD) generally leads to a 3.2% increase in average daily gains of beef cattle. Because increased IVDMD generally does not result in a decrease in forage yield, this results in a net increase in animal production per hectare of land.