In search of greener pastures? Look no further than the University of Tennessee’s Beef and Forage Center.

Gary Bates, professor and director of the UT Beef and Forage Center, and David McIntosh, coordinator of the Beef and Forage Center, have developed an improved, hardy foraging crop.

Nearly every type of livestock grazes on a grass species planted for quality rather than native grass. Known as forage, the pasture plants eaten by grazing animals and utilized by hay producers are carefully selected and cultivated to thrive in certain environments, under specific conditions. Persist orchardgrass, one of the most popular commercial forage grasses currently in use throughout the nation, grew out of the University of Tennessee nearly 20 years ago. Persist is a particularly vigorous variety, the bread-and-butter of livestock pasture diets. It was developed by Bob Conger, now retired from heading the UT Institute of Agriculture’s forage breeding and genetics program. But could this already-successful orchardgrass be improved? Gary asked himself that very question when he realized a lack in the development of a new variety.

Developing a new variety of forage is a slow, arduous process. Prior to testing and evaluation, seeds must be planted and grass given time to establish. Plants only produce seeds annually, thus it takes a full year to complete just one cycle of evaluation and culling. Yet, undeterred by the lengthy development process, Gary and David set to work planting seed in a small pasture.

With the establishment complete, the duo began testing the plants’ resistance to severe grazing. To accomplish this, they brought in grazing gladiators: sheep. Sheep graze much closer to the earth than cattle, and use their lips and teeth to pull grass with greater force than cattle, who rely on their tongues to take in grass. After more than 90% of the plants in the small pasture died, Gary and David relocated the surviving 10% proven tolerant of grazing to a greenhouse. There, the team conducted yield trials to test the grass for vigor, growth, disease, and other key indicators. Each week, individual plants were rated on traits such as speed of growth, evidence of disease, maturation, and top growth. Any plant who did not meet the established criteria was removed, so that only the best grasses remained for the next evaluation.

After nearly 10 years of research and trials, Gary and David achieved a new variety of  orchardgrass with higher yields, increased persistence against grazing, and better disease resistance. “We knew we had something really good,” Gary said. “But I’m a plant guy, so the UT Research Foundation was a very good partner to handle the commercialization process of bringing this new grass to market.”

“UTRF’s success in securing a commercial partner for not just one but two varieties of orchardgrass speaks to the world-class innovation coming out of UT’s Beef and Forage Center,” said UTRF Vice President Maha Krishnamurthy.

Though most varieties of orchardgrass are developed by private companies, not many are developed by academics looking at the specific characteristics of Persist, and even fewer are developed in the mid-south area of Tennessee, Gary explained. The new variety is specifically adapted to this climate, a tremendous asset to Tennessee producers.