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SOLUTION 8

Temperate perennial grasses with limited salinity tolerance

 

8.1  Temperate perennial grasses in a nutshell

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A quick summary

Limited research reports from as far back as the 1960s have proposed a role for perennial pasture grasses with limited salinity tolerance in the management of saltland. Of the established perennial pasture species, perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne), phalaris (Phalaris aquatica) and tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) have been used to some extent on mild saltland. It has also been suggested that the native Australian wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia richardsonii) may have some salt tolerance and therefore have a role in the management of mild salinity. 

Salt-affected land is often either very patchy, or varies from mildly (or non-saline) around the edges of a saline site to highly saline in the centre of a site. Especially when the saltland areas are of small or moderate size, such variability makes the selection of a single species for sowing across the saltland quite problematic. These smaller areas of saltland dominate most regions in southern Australia where dryland salinity has become a problem – the exceptions being the Upper South East of South Australia and the wheatbelt of Western Australia, where large areas of reasonably uniform saltland occur.

If sown as part of a shotgun mixture with more salt-tolerant species, these perennial grasses with low salinity tolerance will occupy the least saline and/or waterlogged areas. This can be positive for the saline site as a whole, but can significantly complicate management because the different species can have different management requirements. In particular, the temperate grasses are generally more palatable than more salt  tolerant species and therefore can be eradicated by preferential grazing.

In recent years, there have been extensive trials on saltland across southern Australia as part of the CRC Dryland Salinity research, which have confirmed that none of these species (or varieties within them) are suitable on sites that have moderate or high levels of either salinity or waterlogging. These temperate grass species can tolerate some waterlogging in winter but not at other times of the year.

In non-saline situations suited to perennial pastures, phalaris is generally a more productive, stable and reliable species than the other temperate grasses such as cocksfoot, fescue and perennial ryegrass as it has superior long term persistence, deep root development and drought tolerance.

It is likely that these same advantages apply on land with low salinity – as well as seeming to be a little more salt-tolerant than the other temperate grasses mentioned above, when faced with dry conditions over summer, phalaris goes dormant and this may help protect it from the peak salinity levels that often occur at that time.

As far as suitability to mild saltland is concerned, phalaris and tall fescuehave similar potential, followed in order by perennial rye and wallaby grass. Perennial rye is not considered further in this Saltland Solution, though it is sometimes included in shotgun mixtures in high rainfall areas, and nor is wallaby grass which was assessed by the CRC Dryland Salinity as having little promise for use on saltland and because of a lack of commercial seed supply.

Lucerne (Medicago sativa) is a deep-rooted perennial legume that would usually be included in a mixture with these perennial grasses with limited salinity tolerance, for its deep root system, its summer growing habit, and its contributions to nitrogen fixation and animal nutrition. Discussion of lucerne is not included here, but it is part of Saltland Solution 10 – Legumes for saltland.

Where these perennial grasses with limited salinity tolerance can be used on and around saltland, they have the great advantage of requiring little or no adjustment to the farming system as these same species will often be already in use on other parts of the farm.

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History

Perennial grasses with limited salinity tolerance have all been a significant part of agriculture in the high rainfall zone of southern Australia for a very long time and are widely grown as pasture species on non-saline land. For example, phalaris is a native of southern Europe, north west Africa and the Mediterranean region. It was first introduced into Australia from the United States in the 1880s and was widely tested across the high rainfall zone of NSW by the early years of the 20th Century. It is now the most widely sown temperate perennial pasture grass in Australia.

These perennial grasses have no significant history as saltland species, but from the 1960s onwards, as the number and area of saline patches increased, they have been included in ‘shotgun mixtures’ on saltland with other, more salt- tolerant species. This is particularly the case in Victoria and New South Wales, where perennial pastures on non-saline land are were already common in the high and medium rainfall zones. These perennial grasses have not traditionally been used in the extensive grazing industries in Western Australia where most of the saltland occurs in rainfall zones too dry for temperate perennial grasses.

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Species identification

SALTdeck was developed in the SGSL program to assist farmers and advisors to identify the 50 most common species associated with saltland. In what is probably a strong indication of the lack of salinity tolerance among these perennial grasses, none were included in SALTdeck. These can be viewed on this website .

Phalaris (Phalaris aquatica L. also known as P. tuberosa) is a temperate winter-active perennial grass. It is the most widely-sown, deep-rooted, temperate perennial grass for the high-rainfall zone and adjacent cropping areas in southern Australia. The young plant has no distinctive colouration. The mature plants form dense tussocks of blue-green leaves that have prominent ligules at the collar region.

Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is a deep rooted perennial grass, grown principally from southern Queensland through the high rainfall zones of NSW, Victoria and Tasmania and to a lesser extent in SA and WA. The leaves are dark green. The upper surface is dull and has distinct veins along the length of the leaf; the lower surface is smooth and glossy; and the leaf edge is rough to touch. Although a temperate species, tall fescue is more summer-active than phalaris, particularly those varieties from the temperate regions of Europe or from America.

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