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SOLUTION 8

Temperate perennial grasses with limited salinity tolerance

 

8.4  Level of confidence in temperate perennial grasses

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How reliable is the information?

There is a very extensive body of knowledge about nearly all aspects of the agronomy, grazing management and animal husbandry associated with phalaris and tall fescue pastures. For both grass species there have been extensive breeding programs, in Australia and overseas and both species have been widely tested across a vast array of soil types and climatic conditions. There have been many books written about temperate perennial pastures and most state Departments of Agriculture (or equivalent) have fact sheets that can be downloaded from the web.

However, some care is needed when applying this extensive body of knowledge about these species from non-saline situations to their management and production on saltland. Perhaps more useful than the general information sheets described above is the fact that the SGSL initiative worked with the Victorian DPI to produce two new fact sheets for these species. For more information, see Tall Fescue establishment and management in saline areas and Phalaris.

There is definitely a place for these temperate grass species in areas that have only low levels of salinity, but there is little information available about the productivity and persistence of these species across a range of saline conditions. We can state reliably:

  • CRC Salinity research has shown that phalaris is applicable to soils with low to moderate salinity levels (summer ECe 2–8 dS/m) in medium and high-rainfall areas;
     
  • Fescue most likely has similar salinity tolerance;
     
  • As soon as salinity levels start to rise from low levels, both phalaris and tall fescue will be out-competed either by other sown grasses such as tall wheatgrass or puccinellia or by more salt-tolerant weeds;
     
  • Both species have some waterlogging tolerance in winter;
     
  • The ‘window’ of opportunity for achieving good performance from these temperate perennial grasses on saltland is quite narrow and often limited to the edges of saline sites in the higher rainfall zones;
     
  • The temperate perennial grasses are not salt accumulators and therefore will be nutritionally similar on saline and non-saline land;
     
  • The general agronomy (establishment techniques, fertiliser needs, grazing management) of both species is well understood for non-saline situations and most of this information should apply to saltland.

There are other aspects to the use of temperate grasses on saltland that reflect a relatively low level of confidence in our knowledge:

  • Pasture production from these temperate grasses has not often been measured on saltland;
     
  • The impact of different salinity and waterlogging combinations on these grasses has not been widely tested;
     
  • Both phalaris and tall fescue are relatively deep rooted and should be able to draw down mildly saline, shallow watertables, but few measurements have been taken;
     
  • While the grazing management of these species has been thoroughly researched, the appropriate management strategies for the shotgun mixtures that are used on saltland have not been well documented.
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Farmer experiences

Both phalaris and tall fescue are widely grown as perennial pastures species on non-saline land, so numerous case studies involving their use are available from farms all around Australia. In addition, both public and private sector advisors in areas where these species are grown, are well versed in all aspects of their agronomy and management. Access to seed supplies (often a problem for some of the more salt-tolerant species) is usually easy for these species because of their widespread use on non-saline land.

There is of course considerably less information and very few case studies regarding the growth of these temperate perennial grasses on saltland, but some inspiring stories are available. For more information, see Talking Salt with George & Dean Hull and Pasture Mixes for Saline/Waterlogged Sites.

The Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food has assembled 17 detailed farmer case studies around the concept of perennial pastures across the southern coastal region. The use of perennial pastures has not been traditional in WA. Many of these case studies are more focussed on the use of lucerne and sub-tropical grasses but the issues and processes are similar enough to temperate perennial grasses to make them useful reading.

At the start of the Sustainable Grazing on Saline Land (SGSL) initiative, a series of 10 farmer case studies were gathered and collated into “Insights” which became the most popular product of the program.

The opening case study in Insights is the only one to involve the use of perennial grasses with limited salinity tolerance to rehabilitate land with low to moderate salinity, as outlined below. What makes this case study especially enlightening is the fact that Andrew Southwell considerably expanded on the case study and presented his own story at the PUR$L conference in 2002.

Andrew Southwell, Lachlan catchment, NSW

Glenflesk and Edenbrae comprise a total of 1189 hectares near Yass in the upper Lachlan catchment in New South Wales. Edenbrae has been in the family since 1950, and we bought Glenflesk in 1982 knowing that it had had a hard time for many years. In addition to being overgrazed, it had some serious salt scalds, one of which was actively eroding and sending yellow subsoil several kilometres down our local creek so the problem was also visible to our neighbours. We had always prided ourselves on being good land managers, but our place was looking worse, not better and we knew we had to do something.

In the mid 1980s there was virtually no information available to us on managing saltland. I did have some contact with the local agronomist, but we generally did it by trial and error, starting with a small area and going on from there.

In the end, it cost us almost $5000 to fix just nine hectares, mainly because of the amount of earthworks and the difficult fencing we had to do, but it fixed up the yellow erosion gutter and gave us the confidence to go on with the other saline areas. We progressively fenced off and sowed our saltland with a ‘shotgun’ mix of tall wheatgrass, puccinellia, fescue, phalaris, ryegrass, cocksfoot, strawberry clover and white clover and we now have about 120 hectares under our saltland system.

In the early 1990s I upgraded my grazing management skills by doing both Grazing for Profit and Prograze courses. This led us to progressively subdivide paddocks and improve the pastures on our non-saline land.

As part of this process we have recorded what livestock all our paddocks carry, over the full year period and this gave us a big surprise – our saltland carries 11 DSE/ha/year on average, while the improved pastures on our non-saline land carry only 8 DSE/ha/year!

The saltland is essentially an underground irrigation system during dry summers and autumns, and this really makes a difference to weaner growth rates and ewe joining weights. The salinity of our water table, which is still at or near ground level, is not high by salinity standards, and ranges from about 0.7 dS/m to about 6.5 dS/m, depending on which piezometer is being measured. 

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Advantages and disadvantages of phalaris and tall fescue

Some of the advantages of phalaris and tall fescue are:

  • Phalaris is the most persistent and drought-tolerant perennial grass species that is commercially available for southern Australia;
  • Both are highly productive and provide good quality grazing for all types of grazing livestock for extended periods of the year;
  • Both can respond to summer rainfall (tall fescue more so than phalaris);
  • Both respond quickly to rainfall in autumn;
  • Once established, both are very competitive robust plants (phalaris more so than tall fescue), good at minimising annual weeds;
  • Both are tolerant of heavy grazing and trampling if given rest periods;
  • Both are reasonably tolerant of (or can recover from) most pests and diseases;
  • Both are reasonably tolerant of winter waterlogging and are tolerant of mild salinity.

Some of the disadvantages of phalaris and tall fescue are:

  • Both (especially tall fescue) have relatively weak seedlings and therefore are very susceptible to competition from annual grasses, clovers and weeds during establishment;
  • Phalaris requires good grazing management to maintain a suitable grass-legume balance (phalaris can dominate) and to maintain long term survival;
  • Tall fescue requires good grazing management to maintain pasture quality – it can quickly become rank and unpalatable;
  • There is some potential for poisoning of livestock, particularly sheep (phalaris poisoning and ergot in tall fescue) but this is unlikely to be a problem with shotgun mixtures on saltland;
  • Both perform poorly in highly acid soils, when waterlogged during warm conditions and when soil salinity is greater than 4-8 dS/m in the topsoil
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Risks and challenges

Site selection and establishment

Because these perennial grasses can only tolerate mild salinity and limited waterlogging the primary challenge is correctly identifying suitable sites for these species. In practice, detailed diagnosis, with salinity and waterlogging testing is rarely carried out especially for small sites. Instead, a shotgun mixture with one or more of these temperate perennial grasses, is sown uniformly across the site. These shotgun mixtures usually contain species that are more salt and waterlogging tolerant (such as tall wheatgrass and puccinellia) and legumes (such as lucerne, strawberry clover and balansa clover) which may be more or less tolerant of waterlogging and salinity, so as to allow the individual species to dominate that part of the saltland patch with the ‘right’ salinity and waterlogging balance. However, seed is expensive, and any simply measures (eg advice from an experienced local) that can be taken to minimise the amount of seed sown into unsuitable locations will reduce the establishment cost and risk.

Weeds

Neither phalaris nor tall fescue are vigorous seedlings and therefore can be susceptible to competition from weeds and possibly other components of the mixture, presenting a further challenge at establishment. This is the situation whether the site is saline or not, and good, reliable establishment ‘recipes’ that include weed control are available) for the establishment of these grasses. In saline situations, the vigour of weed competition is often underestimated. The most likely weeds in the zone where these temperate perennial grasses will be productive are sea barleygrass, barleygrass and annual ryegrass.

Animal nutrition

Both phalaris and tall fescue have been extensively bred to maximise their production and their nutritive value for livestock. However, both species can cause ‘diseases’ in grazing animals – phalaris staggers particularly in areas of cobalt deficiency, phalaris sudden death and ergot poisoning from tall fescue. All are more likely in sheep than in cattle, and both are relatively unlikely problems for animals grazing saltland if the tall fescue and/or phalaris is only part of the feed on offer, although phalaris can send up toxic shoots prior to the break of the season in response to cool mornings with dew. If these shoots are the only green feed on offer they will be grazed preferentially and may cause a problem in young stock or stock introduced from other areas that are not acclimatised to grazing phalaris. 

Weed control, grazing management and fertiliser use are the primary, on-going management challenges.

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Prospects

Recent research

Phalaris and tall fescue have had on-going research and breeding programs for many years, supported by the Wool, Meat and Dairy Industries and their partners.

None of the research or plant breeding for phalaris and tall fescue is currently focussed on their use on saltland and this is not likely to change. The development of recommendations and guidelines for using these pasture species on saltland will have to rely on adapting those guidelines already developed for non-saline sites. This increases the uncertainty associated with such recommendations, but it is aided by the fact that farmers are already familiar with the establishment and management of both phalaris and tall fescue.

Some of this adaptation to saltland has already been undertaken, at least for tall fescue.

Both tall fescue and phalaris were included in a CRC Salinity research project that assessed the performance of a range of grass and legume species at 5 saline sites across southern Australia, although all of the sites had rainfall levels that were generally too low for these grasses to thrive.

Future Prospects

Perennial grasses with limited salinity tolerance are never going to be a nationally significant response to saltland.They are only tolerant of low levels of salinity and there is no research planned to select them for more saline environments.

However, in the higher rainfall areas of NSW and Victoria where there are many small saline patches, shotgun mixtures of salinity tolerant grasses and legumes will continue to be favoured by farmers as the revegetation method of choice for saltland. These shotgun mixtures will continue to include perennial grasses with limited salinity tolerance such as phalaris and tall fescue because these species are readily available, are well understood by farmers, and because they are highly productive around the non-saline and mildly saline ‘fringes’ of salty areas.

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