Multispecies pasture forages
A nine-year study done by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service analyzed the benefits and effects of increasing the number of plant species sown into a pasture.
Howard Skinner is a physiological plant ecologist who worked on the study. He says in one pasture, they planted an orchard grass-white clover mixture. In another pasture, they added tall fescue, alfalfa, and chicory to the orchard grass and white clover.
Skinner says the five-species mixture had on average 31% greater yield than the two-species pasture over the nine years. There were other benefits, too.
"When we looked at soil carbon, there was about three-times as much carbon that accumulated in the soil profile with the five species mixture, so quite an increase in soil organic matter," says Skinner. "And we found that all of that increase occurred deeper in the soil."
Many people say a pasture with so much plant diversity will be hard to manage. Some of them will die out and in the end you’ll end up with just two or three anyway. Skinner says the same thing happened in their experiment, but there was still a noticeable difference in the soil condition and productivity of the multi-species pasture.
"My hypothesis is, is that because we got more organic matter we improved the soil conditions and the soil health, that had a long lasting effect," he says. "And so we managed to continue to see that increased productivity over time, even though we didn’t necessarily have all of those species in our mixture anymore."
Learn more about the multispecies forage study
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