Entomology and Extension Faculty Join a National Team to Study and Support Diverse Perennial Forage Systems with Major Implications for Human and Animal Ecosystem Health

Perennial forage

Image Credit: Susan Schoenian

October 20, 2021 USDA Communications Staff and Graham Binder

With the support of a $10 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the University of Maryland and a multi-state team of researchers is embarking on an effort to study diverse perennial forage systems and to promote their adoption across the United States.

The project, led by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, involves a diverse, transdisciplinary team of more than 50 researchers and stakeholders from 23 universities, two USDA-Agricultural Research Service centers, as well as 12 farmer organizations, industry groups, non-governmental organizations and government agencies. The University of Maryland (UMD) will play an important role with sustainability education, and beneficial insect examination from Bill Lamp, Professor in UMD’s Department of Entomology, and Extension outreach work from Amanda Grev, forage and pasture specialist with UMD Extension.

“The prevailing agricultural systems in the U.S. are dominated by annual crop monocultures that lack resilience to extreme weather, are challenged by soil erosion and other environmental issues,” says project director Valentin Picasso, associate professor in the UW–Madison Department of Agronomy. “Through this new project, we hope to promote the transformation of the landscape to be more resilient, by integrating more perennial crops and forages with livestock.”

“We are interested in the ecosystem services provided by beneficial insects, especially natural enemies and pollinators that are found in crops,” says Lamp. “We want to test that growing diverse species of crops, and using perennial crops, will add more beneficial insects to the farm. We are especially interested in ‘conservation biological control,’ in which populations of natural enemies of pests are enhanced by diverse, perennial crops.”

Part of the overall effort involves convening a nationwide network of 50 farm pairs—one farm already using diverse perennial forage systems, paired with one interested in transitioning towards more diverse perennial systems—that represent all of the major agro-ecoregions of the United States. Researchers will partner with these farm pairs to measure and compare numerous production, environmental, social and economic factors.

“Farms that are doing things like growing more perennial crops, increasing plant diversity, and integrating livestock into a system should see benefits in terms of soil health and forage production, and will likely be more resilient over time,” explains Grev.

The team will share their results through outreach and education materials throughout the five-year term of the award. “We will also analyze the economic conditions, social structures and public policies that hinder the adoption of diverse perennial forage systems, and develop strategies to overcome these constraints,” says Co-PI Andrew Stevens from UW-Madison Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. The long-term goal is to have diverse perennial forage systems adopted across more than nine million hectares of land in the U.S.

“I look forward to working with other participating universities on the development and creation of educational tools, content, materials, and demonstrations focused on the benefits of diverse, perennial systems,” says Grev. “We will also be implementing programming to disseminate materials, host workshops or demonstrations, and share research findings as the project progresses.”

The project’s management team includes faculty from Michigan State University, North Dakota State University, Oregon State University, Saint Cloud State University, University of Maryland and University of Wisconsin–Madison.

This project was announced on Oct. 6 in a USDA news release about new awards made through the department’s AFRI Sustainable Agriculture Systems program. 

“This is the time for agriculture, forestry, and rural communities to act. Together we can lead the way with investments in science and research and climate-smart solutions that feed and nourish families, improve the profitability and resilience of producers, improve forest health, while creating new income opportunities, and building wealth that stays in rural communities,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in the USDA release.

This project is supported by AFRI Sustainable Agricultural Systems Coordinated Agricultural Program (SAS-CAP) grant no. 2021-68012-35917 from USDA NIFA.