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Cycle 8 (2019 Deadline)

Optimization of perennial grasses to improve forage production in Tunisia (OPGIFT)

PI: Salma Sai Kachout (, National Institute of Agronomy Research of Tunisia
U.S. Partner: Niall Hanan, New Mexico State University (funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
Project dates: To be determined

Project Overview:

The Mediterranean climate of North Africa is characterized by hot and dry summers and cool wet winters, and most global climate models show that the water supply will be much lower and the air temperatures significantly higher in the coming decades, especially during the summertime. Crop productivity and biomass are typically low under low-rainfall dryland agricultural systems due to abiotic stresses and low input levels (Twomlow, Hove, and Mupangwa, 2008). Moreover, more frequent droughts and other climatic risks further exacerbate these trends. This is evident in Tunisia, where wheat and barley production in 2010 was down 33% over the five-year average, due to low rainfall ( In Tunisia, livestock production also plays a very important socioeconomic role, but limited access to year-round forage for livestock is a major constraint to the development of more commercial, diversified, and profitable livestock activities. A more effective application of agronomic science and improved technologies is, therefore, necessary to support the diversification of livestock production. Perennial grasses grown for livestock are generally drought resistant and require relatively low inputs. They have recently attracted steady interest due to their extensive environmental benefits both at global and agricultural community-scale. Compared to traditional row crops, perennial grasses require lower energy inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.), can be grown on less productive cropland, and provide benefits in terms of soil structure and stability, soil quality, and biodiversity. The main objective of this project is to identify high-yielding perennial grasses suitable for Tunisian conditions, optimizing the production chains in order to provide a stable source of biomass to ruminants. To do this, the principal investigator and her colleagues collect and characterize the genetic diversity and physiological traits of both the endemic perennial grasses and novel varieties of plants suitable for Tunisia. They will also study agricultural practices that are intended to increase the yield, quality, and income of farmers raising perennial grasses and identify appropriate ruminant diets based on perennial grasses to meet energy and protein requirements at different stages of production. Finally, they will develop capacity for mapping the grazing lands and trends in forage production in Tunisia using long-term data and methods developed by the U.S. partner, Dr. Niall Hanan.

The research team is convinced that the achievement of their objectives will enhance livestock performance, provide the basis for a sustainable farming system, and contribute to the empowerment and livelihoods of rural communities. All studied perennial crops are expected to help diversify farming activities, provide new opportunity to farmers and the rural economy, and facilitate improved infrastructure for harvesting, storage, transport, and logistics. Informed by insights into the available land resource and thus the potential market for improve planting material, the researchers will be well positioned to suggest to policymakers a national perennial grass strategy that will contribute to public and private breeding efforts in Tunisia.

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