Exploring switchgrass: An option for producers to use marginal land and feed livestock
Could switchgrass be an alternative to hay for dairy cattle to decrease competition between humans and cattle for land use and improve soil health?
That’s what University of Guelph researcher Abigail Carpenter from the department of animal biosciences wants to know.
Carpenter is researching the benefits of unconventional fibre sources, such as switchgrass, for cows in various stages of lactation. She previously looked at reducing the environmental footprint of dairy production which, in some cases, decreases methane production. Currently, she wants to know if switchgrass will help decrease competition between humans and cattle for land utilization, all while improving soil health.
She says growing perennial switchgrass on low-quality land that is hillier, more erodible and in low areas beside water features can contribute to provincial environmental priorities in addition to animal health, including reduced soil erosion and reduced nutrient losses to surface water.
Research has already demonstrated switchgrass’ environmental benefits, but dairy producers need clear feeding recommendations in order to consider switching lands to this perennial biomass crop.
“Previously, research on switchgrass focused on using the forage for bedding in farms since it only provides fibrous nutrients unlike some types of hay, which provide protein and energy, as well as fibre,” Carpenter says. “But no one knew the benefits of feeding dairy cattle this easy-to-grow grass.”
Dairy production has become highly efficient, but Carpenter thinks there’s still room to improve soil health and the way humans and livestock share land.
“As the population continues to grow, space and resources are limited, and we need to allocate them in the best way possible,” Carpenter says. “Our hope is by decreasing competition for land between humans and animals, we can make milk more efficiently and reduce the environmental impact of the industry.”