NCCC31: Ecophysiological Aspects of Forage Management

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

NCCC31: Ecophysiological Aspects of Forage Management

Duration: 10/01/2015 to 09/30/2020

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Forage crops and grasslands serve essential roles in US agriculture and society as a whole. Forages encompass a broad range of species that economically provide essential digestible fiber to the nation’s beef, dairy, sheep, goat, and equine production systems. Forages are also the nation's primary tools for broad-based environmental conservation and improvement, cellulosic bioenergy feedstocks, and future value-added industries such as carbon sequestration and provision, regulation, and support of other ecosystem services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Over half of the national area in farms is covered by forage or rangeland species. In 2013, forage hay crops ranked 3rd in total value of harvested crop production behind corn and soybeans at $20 billion, and are the most valuable and extensively-grown crops in some states (USDA NASS, 2014). Valuable ecosystem services provided by forages within cropping systems include soil and water conservation on erosion- and runoff-prone soils with major limitations to annual cropping; reduction in nitrogen losses (especially less nitrate leaching); increased soil organic carbon and associated soil improvement (i.e. improvement in soil structure, water holding capacity, nutrient supply, and crop yield potential); fixed (‘free’) nitrogen from legumes for subsequent crops grown in rotations; improving crop yields in rotations through reduced insect, disease, and weed pressures; and wildlife habitat (Sulc and Franzluebbers, 2014). The wide diversity of forage species and their physiological and compositional characteristics offer opportunities for matching adapted species and management practices with a range of landscapes and environmental conditions to accomplish production and environmental improvement targets.

There is a continuing need to define the opportunities, limitations, and management of forages and grasslands to benefit water quality and quantity; soil health; wildlife habitat and pollinators; and to meet growing global demand for highly nutritious food. Grassland’s role in regulating greenhouse gases and adapting to climate variability is poorly understood and is key to buffering fluctuations in food production and protecting soil and water (Climate Change Position Statement Working Group, 2011), highlighting the need to closely monitor ecophysiological changes in relation to climate variability and environmental extremes. Research and communication is essential to advance the science and practice of forage and grassland management to meet the goal of increasing food production while protecting the environment.

The proposed project addresses several priority research areas: (i) Develop improved animal and plant production systems that are competitive, profitable, climate-resilient, and environmentally sound over the long term; (ii) Integrated pest management (IPM) of forage systems; (iii) Understand and apply ecosystem management principles and practices for the utilization and protection of natural resources, restoration of natural systems, and management of rural landscapes. Project members will collaborate and share research information focused on understanding and developing environmentally sound, profitable forage-based livestock production systems. The proposed activity will benefit forage and grassland practitioners, advisors, scientists and policy-makers; and ongoing professional development of new and established forage and grassland scientists.

Since 1966, this committee has been an essential mechanism of communication to stimulate cooperation among forage scientists and grassland ecologists within and beyond the North Central region. Primary benefits of our collaboration include: (i) program alignment to maximize complementarity and minimize duplication of resources; (ii) multi-disciplinary research proposals; (iii) improved classroom, professional, and outreach education resources at all partner institutions, which include: Forages (Barnes et al., 2003), the primary forage and grasslands science textbook currently used at many land grant institutions; Drought physiology of forage crops in Handbook of Plant and Crop Physiology (Islam and Obour, 2014); Forage and biomass planting in Conservation Outcomes from Pastureland and Hayland Practices (Barker et al., 2012); and Compendium of Alfalfa Diseases and Pests (Samac et al., 2015); (iv) mentoring of new investigators in our field; and (v) multi-state projects including selection trials for birdsfoot trefoil, evaluation of alfalfa-grass mixture dynamics, and development of a shared NIRS nutritive value database.


  1. Review current research on forage and grasslands and coordinate future work among the participating institutions and diverse environments.
  2. Identify emerging forage-related issues and develop collaborative efforts that address high priority physiological, ecological, and management challenges and opportunities.
  3. Develop innovative and effective educational and outreach programs that meet regionally broad stakeholder needs related to forage and grassland management.

Procedures and Activities

The committee will meet annually at a location proposed by the Locations Committee and selected/approved by the entire committee present. The meeting location will vary annually, and will be selected to provide an opportunity for committee members to view relevant forage-related activities at a different location from their 'home' research location.

The annual meeting will typically be a 1.5-day meeting including a half-day tour of local forage research and/or production activity and a full day 'sit-down' meeting. The sit-down meeting will include brief presentations of current research activities by each participating member present, and discussion of research results and opportunities. This annual meeting may at times be in conjunction with another professional meeting if the interaction with committee members in the other meeting is deemed to be of synergistic value to the goals and activity of this committee.

Immediately prior to each annual meeting, each member will compile and share a summary document of their current relevant research as well as publications from their state during the last year.

Collaborative research and outreach education efforts will be initiated around selected topics of majority interest and regionally broad priority. Such activity has been characteristic of this committee in the past and has led to collaborative funding proposals, research, publications, and the development of recommended practices and principles that have been shared across a broad geographic area.

Examples of multidisciplinary research proposals developed by committee members in the past few years and ideas for the future are listed below:

1. At the 2014 NCCC-31 annual meeting in Michigan, we initiated a plan for publication of a manual on forage research techniques so that newer techniques can be added to longstanding classic techniques in a single, user-friendly publication for students, researchers, extension and conservation personnel, and forage workers in the private sector. That planning will take firmer shape at the 2015 meeting.

2. The NCCC-31 committee will identify one dataset, generated from present or past collaborative research projects among committee members, which will be placed in the Ag Data Commons of the National Agriculture Library (NAL). One member of the committee will coordinate this effort in consultation with the NAL. The first dataset submission will serve as a pilot project, and depending on the success of that submission, the committee will identify additional datasets worthy of submission to the Ag Data Commons in the future, in consultation with the NAL.

3. Committee members (MD, OH, WI) are developing a grant proposal to the USDA-NIFA Alfalfa and Forage Research Program (AFRP) grants program for a 3-year project ($209,974 proposed) to evaluate economic injury levels in alfalfa as influenced by host resistance and presence of grass in the stand. The specific objectives are (i) to quantify economic loss associated with potato leafhopper in a susceptible cultivar, a resistant cultivar, and a grass-susceptible alfalfa mixture across three states; (ii) to examine the potential of potato leafhopper to impact nitrogen fixation of alfalfa under greenhouse and field conditions, and (iii) to develop economic threshold guidelines on potato leafhopper management and disseminate through extension outlets.

4. Members of the committee (PA, OH, MI, WI) and colleagues at Kansas State Univ. and Univ. of California-Davis initiated studies in 2015 to evaluate changes in forage yield and nutritive value over time of a new genetically modified reduced-lignin alfalfa variety (HarvXtra) and develop management guidelines for its use in production systems. This work is being funded by Monsanto Co. in collaboration with Forage Genetics Int’l.

5. Members of the committee (OH, TN, AL) applied successfully in 2014 to the USDA-NIFA Alfalfa and Forage Research Program (AFRP) grants program for a 3-year project ($165,000) for evaluating alfalfa-grass mixtures. The specific objectives are to characterize across three locations (OH, TN, AL) the nutritive value and herbage accumulation of alfalfa grown as a monoculture compared to alfalfa-grass mixtures, determine the influence of harvest frequency on alfalfa and alfalfa-mixtures on yield, nutritive value and botanical composition, and develop an extension programming to help train extension educators and producers about managing grass-alfalfa mixtures.

6. Committee members (WV, MI) and a colleague at University of Idaho developed and submitted an unsuccessful grant proposal on field spectral analysis of botanical and nutritional composition of alfalfa-grass canopies to the USDA-NIFA Alfalfa and Forage Research Program (AFRP) in 2014 and are submitting a revision in 2015.

7. A USDA AFRI plant breeding grant (Increasing legume grazing for higher beef gain on pastures: An improved high-tannin birdsfoot trefoil cultivar with trans-regional potential) was awarded to Edzard van Santen (Auburn University) in 2013. Members of NCCC_TEMP31 who are subcontractors on this grant are Jennifer MacAdam (UT), Tom Griggs (WV) and Kim Cassida (MI). About 133 birdsfoot trefoil (BFT) accessions cultivated under Utah, Michigan and Alabama conditions will be assessed for a number of traits including tannin concentration (MacAdam), and a NIRS tannin prediction equation for BFT tannins will be developed (Griggs). The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a widely-adapted trans-regional BFT cultivar with moderate to high condensed tannin concentration and longer stand life than existing cultivars.

8. In 2010, the NCCC-31 group applied for and successfully received a $50,000 planning grant from the USDA-NIFA-AFRI grants program to prepare a Coordinated Agricultural Projects (CAP) proposal. On January 13, 2012, the NCCC-31 group submitted a full proposal to the grants program titled: “Climate-Resilient Pastures in the Carbon Economy”. The total budget was $9,999,924. Our hypothesis was that reliability and flexibility of meat and dairy production in the US will be improved in the face of climate changes with pasture-based livestock systems, as opposed to energy-intensive grain and hay feeding. The proposal was not funded; however, the proposal process was a strong effort in interweaving the variety of skills and geographic placements represented by NCCC-31 members. There were 12 NCCC-31 members among the co-PIs, and we brought in 4 other organizations as collaborators. This was a very instructive undertaking in that we built institutional wisdom so that future opportunities can be pursued with greater chances of success.

9. Members of the committee along with other colleagues in states represented on the committee (PA, OH, WI, MI) have collaborated on projects funded by Monsanto Co. (2006-2014) evaluating several aspects of managing Roundup Ready alfalfa in forage production systems. These projects have provided useful information for extension programs that answer grower questions on managing Roundup Ready alfalfa, as well as being the basis for jointly published articles in refereed journals.

10. In 2009, a multistate research project was initiated by the committee to evaluate performance of alfalfa and tall fescue mixtures across six study sites - PA, WI, VA, WY, MD and UT. Alfalfa–fescue mixtures yielded similarly to fescue monocultures fertilized with 100 kg N ha-1; however, tall fescue growth did not benefit greatly from association with alfalfa across those diverse locations. Grass-legume mixtures have value and may be more resilient to climate variation than monocultures. We suggest breeding or selection efforts need to be directed at improving the compatibility of grass-legume mixtures to improve overall mixture performance. Part of the data set was published (Tracy et al., Grassland Science in Europe 18:192-194).

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Exchange and discussion of current relevant forage research information/data, leading to improved focus and proficiency of our research and identification of critical regional or national forage ecophysiological research issues.
  • Coordination of common research and extension proposals and projects.
  • Publication of joint research, book chapters, reviews, monographs, and extension and outreach activities that will benefit forage and grassland practitioners, advisors, scientists and policy-makers.
  • Mentoring of new investigators who participate in the group.
  • Strengthening classroom education and outreach and extension programing using knowledge gained from the research shared in the committee. An additional outcome will be development and sustenance of critical lines of communication among forage scientists on issues for enhanced forage research, extension, and education.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

The committee members share a common goal to serve societal needs with their forage production and management research, extension, and education activities. The research, teaching and extension activities published by this committee's members ultimately anchor state and regional teaching and extension programs by which research results are disseminated to students, producers, industry, advisers, and consumers. The output of this committee to forage scientists nationally and internationally ensures the efficient use of research results by students and colleagues across broad geographic regions to which they may apply, and by producers and the public through members with or without formal extension appointments.


The committee will nominate and elect a new Chair-Elect/Secretary at every annual meeting via an annually-appointed Nominating Committee recommendation followed by an overall committee election. The elected Chair-Elect/Secretary will serve as Secretary at the following year's meeting, then as Chair the year after that. The overall committee will generally operate via three subcommittees appointed at each annual meeting: Nominating, Locations, and Resolutions committees. The committee will also continue to value the assistance, administrative leadership, and presence of an Administrative Advisor, currently Dr. James Kells of Michigan State University, who has agreed to continue serving in this capacity.

The NCCC-31 structure has historically been very conducive to generating ideas for collaborative work among its members. That work has and will continue to include both older established as well as new committee members with the objective of mentoring new members in collaborative and multidisciplinary research. The following describes the coordination of collaborative research and extension proposals and projects to be followed by the committee.

Ideas for common research and extension proposals and projects will be discussed among committee members formally (i.e. built into meeting agenda) and informally during each annual meeting. The committee chair will encourage members to come prepared to discuss potential collaborations at each annual meeting.

Ideas for collaboration of greatest interest to the committee or a significant subset core of members will be pursued by a smaller “action” group who will solidify the idea and select one state to lead development of the project. Discussions for development, planning, and execution of the project or activity, including writing grant proposals to fund it, will occur outside the formal annual meeting through teleconferencing and email. The action group will determine if other colleagues within or outside the NCCC-31 group are needed to add significant value to the proposed project, and those colleagues will be invited to contribute. Progress of collaborative projects will be reported at the annual meeting for input and peer review by colleagues. Outputs such as publications, curricula development, and extension education activities will be carried out by the action group involved with a particular collaborative project.

This approach has served committee members well in the past. New communication technologies readily available now greatly facilitate communications for development of future collaborative work. The NCCC-31 committee provides an excellent means to mentor and include new committee members in collaborative projects by building relationships and providing structure to bring together colleagues with common interests and complementary strengths for strong multidisciplinary teams.

Literature Cited

Barker, D.J., J.W. MacAdam, T.J. Butler, and R. Mark Sulc. 2012. Forage and biomass planting. p. 41-110. In C.J. Nelson (ed.) Conservation outcomes from pastureland and hayland practices: Assessment, recommendations, and knowledge gaps. Allen Press, Lawrence, KS.

Barnes, R.F, C.J. Nelson, M. Collins, and K.J. Moore (ed.) 2003. Forages, Vol. I, An Introduction to Grassland Agriculture, 6th ed. Wiley-Blackwell.

Climate Change Position Statement Working Group. 2011. Position Statement on Climate Change. Working Group Rep. ASA, CSSA, and SSSA, Madison, WI, May 11, 2011.

Islam, M.A., and A.K. Obour. 2014. Drought physiology of forage crops. p. 427-440. In M. Pessarakli (ed.) Handbook of Plant and Crop Physiology, 3rd ed. (, CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Publishing Company, Florida.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

Samac, D.A., L.H. Rhodes, and W.O. Lamp (ed.) 2015. Compendium of Alfalfa Diseases and Pests. 3rd ed. APS Press, The American Phytopathological Society, St. Paul, MN.

Sulc, R.M., and A.J. Franzluebbers. 2014. Exploring integrated-crop livestock systems in different ecoregions of the United States. Europ. J. Agronomy 57:21-30.

USDA NASS. 2014. Crop values: 2013 Summary. Available at


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

ARS, Texas Tech University, USDA-ARS, USDA-ARS/Mississippi, USDA-ARS/Wisconsin
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