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New grasses to cope with changing climatic conditions

Developing new drought resistant grasses could surprisingly help prevent flooding by improving water absorption and soil structure. Melanie Jenkins finds out more.

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Scientists claim climate change will result in more extreme weather patterns – hotter, drier weather contrasting with periods of intense rainfall. This means farmers need to plan ahead to grow forage which can cope with both drought and flood – and one research department is developing exactly that.


Sureroot, a five-year project researching the benefits of hybrid grasses called festuloliums, has found drought, cold and flood resistance can reduce water run off by up to 50 per cent – compared to perennial rye-grass – through better rooting and soil structure.


Now in its second year, the project is holding farm trials to see if festuloliums can work well in ruminant and mono-gastric systems.


Mike Humphreys, professor at Aberystwyth University and head of the Sureroot project at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Ibers), is leading the development of new hybrids.


In the EU prior to 2004, only hybrids between Italian rye-grass and meadow fescue could be called festulolium. Now festuloliums can be a cross between any naturally hybridising Italian or perennial rye-grass and any fescue species, of which, there are more than 500 indigenous to temperate grasslands.


The combination of both species results in traits such as deeper, bigger and stronger roots, allowing for more water absorption and improved soil structure, according to Dr Humphreys.


Fescues tend to need fewer nutrients than rye-grass, meaning they can be suitable for low input and organic systems. They provide deeper and stronger roots which gives extra resilience, while rye-grasses have fast growth and provide nutritious fodder.


Though all from the same species, different varieties of fescues are found all across the world, providing varying resistance to drought and rainfall, says Dr Humphreys. “We should be able to breed increasingly climate smart perennials which can cope with all types of stresses.”


Ibers is using combinations of Italian and perennial rye-grasses with meadow, tall, glaucous and Atlas fescues. Tall and glaucous fescues originate from the Mediterranean region, while Atlas fescue is from North Africa. This means they are particularly drought resistant, he says. Meadow fescue is indigenous to Northern Europe and has winter hardiness.


“Developing deeper rooting grasses can help stabilise soils, which can better hold nutrients and combat soil compaction,” he says.


As festulolium roots go deeper into the soil than a rye-grass would, the plant is able to get water from deeper in the water table and can use this more efficiently.


“The root turnover also makes for a more sponge-like soil, which means there is less impact on the soil from flooding,” adds Dr Humphreys.


The grasses are currently being tested at the North Wyke National Farm Platform in Devon, where the hydrology of each field is isolated and tested for trace carbon, nutrients and water.


“There are different varieties of festuloliums growing in these fields and we can test how they work in terms of run-off,” says Dr Humphreys.

Farm trials

  • Current trials cover 10 farms across England and Wales
  • The farms are geographically spread with a range of soil types and the grasses are in a short-term ley silage system
  • The project is also investigating clovers and grass clover mixes but this is in the early stages of research
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