NCCC31: Ecophysiological Aspects of Forage Management

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

NCCC31: Ecophysiological Aspects of Forage Management

Duration: 10/01/2020 to 09/30/2025

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

Forage crops and grasslands provide essential services in US agriculture and society. Forages and grassland crops are the base of the nation’s ruminant livestock production system and the primary tools for broad-based resource conservation, cellulosic bioenergy feedstocks, and other value-added industries.  Over half of the national acreage in farms is covered by forage, grassland, or rangeland species. In 2018, hay crops ranked third in total value of harvested crop production behind corn and soybeans at $15.4 billion, and are the most valuable and extensively-grown crops in some states (USDA NASS, 2018). Forages provide critical ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, climate regulation, and soil conservation (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Other essential ecosystem services provided by including forages in food production systems include: provision of essential digestible energy and protein to the nation’s  beef, dairy, sheep, goat, and equine production systems; soil and water conservation on erosion- and runoff-prone soils; improvement of degraded soils; reduction in nitrogen losses (especially less nitrate leaching); increased soil organic carbon with associated improvement in soil structure, water holding capacity, nutrient supply, and crop yield potential; improved availability of N and P; fixed nitrogen from legumes for subsequent crops grown in rotations; increased crop yields in rotations via improved soil health and biodiversity with reduced insect, disease, and weed pressures; and provision of habitat for pollinators and wildlife (Garrett et al., 2017; Sulc and Franzluebbers, 2014).


Grassland’s role in regulating greenhouse gases and adapting to climate variability is poorly understood and is key to buffering fluctuations in food production and protecting soil and water (Climate Change Position Statement Working Group, 2011), highlighting the need to closely monitor forage ecophysiological changes in relation to climate variability and environmental extremes. The wide diversity of forage species and their physiological and compositional characteristics offer opportunities for matching adapted species and management practices with a range of landscapes and environmental conditions to accomplish production and environmental improvement goals. Communication networks among scientists are essential to advance the science behind the practice of forage and grassland management to meet the goal of increasing food production, specifically meat and dairy proteins, while protecting the environment.


Our project addresses several priority research areas from the Science Roadmap for Food and Agriculture: (i) Reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve carbon sequestration on agricultural lands, (ii) enhance crop and livestock productivity and nutritional value, (iii) develop forage crops that are resilient to climate change and use fewer non-renewable resources, (iii) conserve water quality and quantity; (iv) improve soil health, and (v) improve producer profitability. Project members will collaborate and share research information focused on understanding and developing environmentally sound and profitable forage-based livestock production systems. The proposed activities will benefit forage and grassland practitioners, advisors, scientists and policy-makers; and support ongoing professional development of new and established forage and grassland scientists.


Since 1966, this committee has been an essential mechanism of communication to stimulate cooperation among forage scientists and grassland ecologists within and beyond the North Central region. Ongoing benefits of our collaboration include: (i) program alignment to maximize complementarity and minimize duplication of resources; (ii) multi-disciplinary/multi-institutional research proposals; (iii) improved classroom, professional, and outreach education resources at all partner institutions, and mentoring of new investigators in our field. Highlights of accomplishments from the previous five-year project include: a new edition of Forages, Vol. 1, 7th Ed. (Collins et al., 2018), the forage and grasslands science textbook used at many land grant institutions; a revised edition of Forages, Vol. II: The Science of Grassland Agriculture, 7th ed. (Moore et al., 2020 in press); and evaluation of reduced lignin alfalfa across multiple environments (Arnold et al., 2019).


The NCCC031 project is non-duplicative because it considers all aspects of ecophysiology in managed grassland plant systems across a wide geographic base.  Other projects that include forage physiology components include WERA1014 - Intensive Management of Irrigated Forages for Sustainable Livestock Production in the Western U.S., and NC1182: Management and Environmental Factors Affecting Nitrogen Cycling and Use Efficiency in Forage-Based Livestock Production Systems.  The former is specific to irrigation, a practice that is uncommon with forages in the rest of the U.S., and the latter is specific to  nitrogen cycling and has a  large animal-focused component.  



  1. Discuss and critique current research concerning forage and grassland ecophysiology and management among participating institutions and guests while fostering cooperative efforts and professional development.
  2. Identify high-priority management challenges related to physiological and ecological aspects of forages and grasslands and develop collaborative research opportunities to address those challenges across the diverse environments of participating institutions.
  3. Cooperate to develop effective educational and outreach materials that communicate advances in forage and grassland ecophysiology and management to stakeholders throughout the region, nation, and world.

Procedures and Activities

The committee will meet annually at a location proposed by the Locations Committee and selected/approved by the entire committee present. The meeting location will vary annually and will be selected to provide an opportunity for committee members to view relevant forage-related activities at a different location from their 'home' research location.

The annual meeting will typically be a 1.5-day meeting including a half-day tour of local forage research and/or production activity and a full day of sit-down meeting. The sit-down meeting will include brief presentations of current research activities by each participating member present, and discussion of research results and opportunities. This annual meeting may at times be in conjunction with another professional meeting if the interaction with committee members in the other meeting is deemed to be of synergistic value to the goals and activity of this committee.

Immediately prior to each annual meeting, each member will compile and share a summary document of their current relevant research as well as publications from their state during the last year.

Collaborative research and outreach education efforts will be initiated around selected topics of majority interest and regionally broad priority. Such activity has been characteristic of this committee in the past and has led to collaborative funding proposals, research, publications, and the development of recommended practices and principles that have been shared across a broad geographic area.

Examples of multidisciplinary research proposals developed by committee members in the past few years and plans for the future are listed below:

  1. At the 2019 NCCC-31 annual meeting in Wisconsin, we initiated plans for hosting a symposium at a Tri-Societies meeting (American Society of Agronomy/Crop Science Society of America/Soil Science Society of America) on ecosystem services provided by forage crops, such as economic value, social value, human health impact, water quality, soil health, climate change, and insect biodiversity. The symposium is aimed to educate on the value of perennial forage in the landscape. The Committee will also write review articles and extension bulletins on key topics as presented in the symposium.

  1. At the 2019 NCCC-31 annual meeting in Wisconsin, we decided to use the National Ag Library Ag Data Commons or similar repository to curate datasets generated by the group, including published and unpublished data, applied data, extension data, and images. The Committee is also planning a grant proposal to fund digitization of historical data such as variety tests and forage management research.

  1. Committee members (MI, UT, MO, WV) collaborated on an USDA-AFRI plant breeding grant awarded to Edzard van Santen (Auburn University) for 2013-2016. About 133 birdsfoot trefoil (BFT) accessions from the National Germplasm Collection were assessed for forage quality traits, condensed tannin concentration, and persistence.  Birdsfoot trefoil/tall fescue mixtures were evaluated for yield, forage quality, and persistence.

  1. Members of the committee (OH, TN, AL) applied successfully in 2014 to the USDA-NIFA Alfalfa and Forage Research Program (AFRP) grants program for a 3-year project ($165,000) for evaluating alfalfa-grass mixtures. The specific objectives are to characterize across three locations (OH, TN, AL) the nutritive value and herbage accumulation of alfalfa grown as a monoculture compared to alfalfa-grass mixtures, determine the influence of harvest frequency on alfalfa and alfalfa-mixtures on yield, nutritive value and botanical composition, and develop an extension programming to help train extension educators and producers about managing grass-alfalfa mixtures.

  1. Since 2015, members of the committee (OH, MI, PA,WI, UT) with colleagues at Kansas State Univ. and Univ. of California-Davis have been conducting a series of collaborative replicated multi-state studies to evaluate forage yield and quality of genetically modified reduced-lignin (HarvXtra) and conventionally bred high-digestibility alfalfa varieties. These studies will continue through 2020 to inform development of management guidelines for use of high-quality alfalfa in production systems. Work is funded by Monsanto and Forage Genetics International.

  1. Members of the committee (MD, OH, WI) applied successfully in 2015 to the USDA-NIFA Alfalfa and Forage Research Program (AFRP) grants program for a 3-year project ($215,000) for revising economic thresholds for potato leafhopper in alfalfa systems. The specific objectives were to determine economic loss relationships for potato leafhopper in alfalfa cropping systems across three locations (MD, OH, WI), to examine the effect of the leafhopper on nitrogen fixation, and to extend new information on economic thresholds.

  1. Members of the committee (MI, PA, WI, WI-ARS) and colleagues at USDA-ARS in Idaho received funding ($250,000) from the USDA-NIFA Alfalfa and Forage Research Program (ARFP) in 2017 for a three-year study to evaluate feasibility of interseeding alfalfa with silage corn in multiple environments. Specific objectives were: 1) conduct multistate research station studies to assess how corn seeding rate, wheel traffic, and application of prohexadione growth regulator and fungicide/insecticide to hybrid and leafhopper-resistant varieties impacts establishment of interseeded alfalfa ; 2) use data collected from multistate research station and on-farm studies to identify key weather, soil, and management factors determining the success of alfalfa establishment by interseeding into silage corn; and 3) formulate best management practices for establishing alfalfa by interseeding into corn silage and conduct outreach. Follow-up experiments are being planned.

  1. Members of the committee (MD, OH, WV) applied successfully in 2017 to the USDA-NIFA Alfalfa and Forage Research Program (AFRP) grants program for a 3-year project ($290,000) for developing proximal (handheld) and remote (UAVs) sensing of alfalfa canopies for rapid decision-making concerning leafhopper injury. The specific objectives were to assess canopy conditions in existing field plots towards rapid assessment of insect pest stress, to validate technology on a field scale, and to develop specific guidelines for predicting insect injury using proximal and remote sensing.

  1. Committee members (KY, WI) collaborated on a proposal to evaluate the response of alfalfa and other forage legumes to climate change, include warming and altered water availability, in both states. The proposal was submitted to USDA-NIFA-AFRI-ASAFS in spring 2019 but was unfortunately not selected for funding. Committee members plan to pursue additional funding lines and will continue to collaborate on the proposed work.

  1. Committee members (AR, WI) are finalizing plans for a project that will evaluate growth, grain and forage productivity, and nutritive value of Kernza® intermediate wheatgrass grown in silvopastoral systems. This study will be conducted at two sites, one northern and one southern, to assess the role of trees in mitigating heat stress on this cool season perennial, potentially enhancing the feasibility of growing Kernza in hot southern climates. This work will also evaluate the role trees have in stabilizing yields over time.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Exchange and discussion of current relevant forage research information/data, leading to improved focus and proficiency of our research and identification of critical regional or national forage ecophysiological research issues.
  • Coordination of common research and extension proposals and projects.
  • Publication of joint research, book chapters, reviews, monographs, and extension and outreach activities that will benefit forage and grassland practitioners, advisors, scientists and policy-makers.
  • Mentoring of new investigators who participate in the group.
  • Strengthening classroom education and outreach and extension programing using knowledge gained from the research shared in the committee.
  • Development and sustenance of critical lines of communication among forage scientists on issues for enhanced forage research, extension, and education.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

The committee members share a common goal to serve societal needs with their forage production and management research, extension, and education activities. The research, teaching and extension activities published by this committee's members ultimately anchor state and regional teaching and extension programs by which research results are disseminated to students, producers, industry, advisers, and consumers. The output of this committee to forage scientists nationally and internationally ensures the efficient use of research results by students and colleagues across broad geographic regions to which they may apply, and by producers and the public through members with or without formal extension appointments.


The committee will nominate and elect a new Chair-Elect/Secretary at every annual meeting via an annually-appointed Nominating Committee recommendation followed by an overall committee election. The elected Chair-Elect/Secretary will serve as Secretary at the following year's meeting, then as Chair the year after that. The overall committee will generally operate via three subcommittees appointed at each annual meeting: Nominating, Locations, and Resolutions committees. The committee will also continue to value the assistance, administrative leadership, and presence of an Administrative Advisor, currently Dr. James Kells of Michigan State University, who has agreed to continue serving in this capacity.

The NCCC-31 structure has historically been very conducive to generating ideas for collaborative work among its members. That work has and will continue to include both older established as well as new committee members with the objective of mentoring new members in collaborative and multidisciplinary research. The following describes the coordination of collaborative research and extension proposals and projects to be followed by the committee.

Ideas for common research and extension proposals and projects will be discussed among committee members formally (i.e. built into meeting agenda) and informally during each annual meeting. The committee chair will encourage members to come prepared to discuss potential collaborations at each annual meeting.

Ideas for collaboration of greatest interest to the committee or a significant subset core of members will be pursued by a smaller “action” group who will solidify the idea and select one state to lead development of the project. Discussions for development, planning, and execution of the project or activity, including writing grant proposals to fund it, will occur outside the formal annual meeting through teleconferencing and email. The action group will determine if other colleagues within or outside the NCCC-31 group are needed to add significant value to the proposed project, and those colleagues will be invited to contribute. Progress of collaborative projects will be reported at the annual meeting for input and peer review by colleagues. Outputs such as publications, curricula development, and extension education activities will be carried out by the action group involved with a particular collaborative project.

This approach has served committee members well in the past. New communication technologies readily available now greatly facilitate communications for development of future collaborative work. The NCCC-31 committee provides an excellent means to mentor and include new committee members in collaborative projects by building relationships and providing structure to bring together colleagues with common interests and complementary strengths for strong multidisciplinary teams.

Literature Cited

Arnold, A.M., K.A. Cassida, K.A. Albrecht, M.H. Hall, D.H. Min, X. Xu, S. Orloff, D.J. Undersander, E. van Santen, and R.M. Sulc.  Multi-state evaluation of reduced lignin alfalfa harvested at different intervals. Crop Sci 59:1799–1807. doi:10.2135/cropsci2019.01.0023


Collins, M., Kenneth J. Moore, C. Jerry Nelson, and Robert F. Barnes (Eds.).  2018.  Forages, Volume I: An Introduction to Grassland Agriculture, 7th Ed.  . Wiley-Blackwell.


Climate Change Position Statement Working Group. 2011. Position Statement on Climate Change. Working Group Rep. ASA, CSSA, and SSSA, Madison, WI, May 11, 2011.


Garrett, R.D, M.T. Niles, J.D.B. Gil, A. Gaudin, R  Chaplin-Kramer, A. Assmann, T.S. Assmann, K.  Brewer, P.C.D. Carvalho, O. Cortner, R. Dynes, K. Garbach, E.  Kebreab, N. Mueller, C. Peterson, J.C. Reis, V.  Snow, and J. Valentim. 2017. Social and ecological analysis of commercial integrated crop livestock systems: Current knowledge and remaining uncertainty. Agricultural Systems  155: 136-146.


Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.


Moore, K.J., M. Collins, C.J. Nelson, and D.D. Redfearn. 2020. Forages: Volume II: The Science of Grassland Agriculture, 7th Ed., Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-119-43657-7.


Sulc, R.M., and A.J. Franzluebbers. 2014. Exploring integrated-crop livestock systems in different ecoregions of the United States. Europ. J. Agronomy 57:21-30.


USDA NASS. 2018. Crop values: 2018 Summary. Available at


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

Texas Tech University, USDA-ARS, USDA-ARS/Wisconsin
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