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PARTNERSHIPS FOR ENHANCED ENGAGEMENT IN RESEARCH (PEER)
Cycle 8 (2019 Deadline)


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

PI: Salma Sai Kachout (salmasey@yahoo.fr), 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: June 2020 - September 2022

Project Overview:

8-015 Nidhal
Associate Professor Nidhal Ghorbel of FST, the team member responsible for characterizing the genetic diversity of local genetic resources of perennial grasses, transplanting some seedlings.
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 (www.pecad.fas.usda.gov/). 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.

Summary of Recent Activities:

8-015 New Plot Study
Project team members setting out the new study plot for Phalaris aquatica at INRAT.
Following are progress updates on all of the project work packages as of the date of the most recent annual report in March 2022. The project is continuing under a no-cost extension through September 2022.

Work Package 1: Optimization of perennial grasses for biomass production
The PI and her team carried out targeted surveys to take stock of the distribution of the perennial grass species studied under this project, Festuca arundinaceae, Phalaris aquatica, Dactylis glomerata and Lolium perenne. Another objective of these surveys was to develop capacities for mapping pastures and forage production trends in Tunisia using long-term data to promote opportunities and adoption of Earth observation technologies. With this in mind, they worked to collect and characterize both perennial grasses and endemic species and develop pasture mapping capabilities and forage production trends in Tunisia. Based on the results of a perennial grass seed collection mission in 1994, they planned to target the same sites or sites close to those mentioned in the mission. Due to lack of time on the PEER project, they could only survey three sites in the Jendouba region and one site in the delegation of El Krib (Siliana). However, during the remaining months of the project they will update the work of the 1994 mission concerning perennial grasses.

Work Package 2: Genetic characterization and selection of perennial grasses
Given the limited number of previous studies on Tunisian perennial grasses, this project aimed to study their genetic diversity in a collection of these phytoresources using morpho-agronomic parameters and molecular markers. Different molecular marker techniques have been used (SRAP) and others are being tested such as SSR and EST-SSR. In this part of the project, the use of the SRAP technique in the study of genetic diversity in the four forage species has been of great benefit in the detection of polymorphism.

Work Package 3: Agronomic practices and abiotic stress tolerance influencing biomass yield
In this component of the project, Dr. Sai Kachout and her colleagues evaluated the agronomic value of Phalaris aquatica under different cutting frequencies. This evaluation provides a better understanding of the influence of the number of cuts and the rate of defoliation on regrowth in Phalaris aquatica. To meet the objectives of this third component, they involved a Master's student whose work focused on the study of the response of a few varieties of perennial grasses to water stress and the development of molecular markers linked to drought tolerance.

Work Package 4: Improved production of perennial grasses for small ruminants
Monitoring and comparison of the impact of animal feed in rangelands with and without perennial grasses on the production and reproduction performance of sheep and goats at different physiological stages, in particular the most critical stages such as mating, pregnancy, lactation and growth of young. This project component involves surveys of target farms to characterize the production system and analyze the schedules of health problems, reproductive performance such as mating behavior, fertility, prolificacy and average daily weight gain of young. Work on this component was still under way at the time of the most recent report in March 2022

Work Package 5: Socio-economic studies
This component involves assessing the profitability of forage production using perennial grasses and the sustainability of rangelands and their effect on total livestock factor productivity. The researchers also plan to measure the qualitative and quantitative impacts of perennial grass production and perform a cost/benefit study. They have encountered delays due to COVID-related restrictions, so work is still ongoing.

Work Package 6: Dissemination
The PI and her team are continuing to work on the project website, including a Perennial Grass Portal database. They have published one paper so far, and are in preparation. They also plan to organize a final dissemination workshop.


Publication

Kachout, S.S., BenYoussef, S., Ennajah, A. et al. 2021. Physiological and morphological traits associated with germinative and reproductive stage of garden orache (A. hortensis L. var. rubra) under water stress. Chem. Biol. Technol. Agric. 8, 26 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40538-021-00218-7

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