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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 - January 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.
On June 17 and 23, 2021, Dr. Salma Sai Kachout and other members of her PEER team traveled to Jendouba and El Krib in northwestern Tunisia to survey and collect perennial grasses with the aim of updating previous prospecting work carried out in 1994 by a team of Tunisian, Australian, and U.S. scientists. Also during the second quarter of this year, they monitored their new study plot for perennial grasses at the Mornag site, as well as their new plot for Dactylis glomerata populations at INRAT.

Because their project activities got off to a late start due to COVID-related restrictions, they have not yet been able to organize scientific events planned within the framework of the PEER project. Fortunately, however, Dr. Sai Kachout was able to begin her previously postponed training visit to her U.S. partner Dr. Niall Hanan’s lab at New Mexico State University, where she will be spending all of August. Her work there will center on analyzing dynamics of vegetation and fodder in Tunisia, gaining additional expertise in the application of remote sensing techniques, and drafting a joint publication. While she is away, her team members will continue with a range of activities planned for the remainder of the year. These include continuing surveys and sampling of perennial grasses in central and coastal Tunisia and other regions not previously prospected and setting the schedule for a mapping study to develop the team’s capacity to map pastures and fodder production trends in Tunisia. Lab-based work will focus on morphological, molecular, and eco-physiological characterization of perennial grasses and a study of their response to abiotic stresses. A no-cost extension is being issued through January 31, 2022, to allow for completion of field work and equipment purchases. 


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