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Cool-Season Grasses for Saline Soils

More than 10 million acres of soil in the Dakotas are considered saline. Producers and landowners who manage land impacted by saline soils are concerned with losses in production and continued expansion of acreage impacted by salinity. Large acreages of perennial grasses and forbs that once covered the prairie are now producing annual crops. Cropping systems shifted over the last 30-40 years from mostly fallow/small grain rotations to traditional diverse crop rotations with 5-7 crops, and most recently to rotations dominated primarily by two or three crops. The changes in land use have affected water management, resulting in continued expansion of saline-impacted soils. Landowners and producers want to know what they can plant on saline soils that can provide forage for livestock or wildlife habitat.

Perennial forage grasses are often the best alternative to annual crop production for utilizing and reclaiming saline-impacted soils. Grasses provide continuous ground cover, forage for livestock, and habitat for wildlife. They improve the physical structure of the soil and improve water infiltration. However, there is still a question about which species of grasses will best establish and provide quality livestock forage in saline soil?   

To address this need, the Bismarck Plant Materials Center cooperated with the North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center to evaluate 11 cool-season grasses across a salinity gradient with electrical conductivity EC ranging from 3 to 21dS/m. The majority of the perennial grass cultivars chosen for this study were developed by the Plant Materials Program and/or in cooperation with another State or Federal agency. Plots were seeded in Buchanan and Carrington, ND in 2010, and forage production was evaluated annually from 2011-2015. Samples were weighed for dry matter yield and forage quality estimates of crude protein and digestibility.

Perennial cool-season grass cultivars were ranked according to their salinity tolerance and forage quality. Table 1 provides a summary of the salinity tolerance, forage production and quality of the grass cultivars. A complete summary of the results from the study are documented in Plant Materials Technical Note No. 1 and is available on the Bismarck Plant Materials Center website.  This is valuable information for producers and landowners looking for perennial cool-season grass species that will address salinity concerns, provide quality livestock forage and provide wildlife habitat in the Northern Great Plains.

 

Summary of saline tolerance, forage quality, and yield of cool-season grasses evaluated on a known salinity gradient in Carrington and Buchanan, North DakotaImage of Carrington, ND saline site prior to seeding the cool-season perennial grass speciesImage of Carrington, ND saline site 6 years after seeding cool-season perennial grass species with greater saline tolerance