Diversity Relationships in Native, Warm-Season Plant Communities used for Agriculture

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Virginia Tech

Studies suggest that diverse mixtures of plants may improve forage productivity and also be suitable as bioenergy crops. The objectives of this research were: 1) to measure the effects of native, warm-season perennial (NWSP) forage mixtures and management methods on productivity, weed biomass, nutritive value, and community composition, and 2) to identify mechanisms that generate any positive diversity-productivity relationships over a three-year establishment period. In 2008, two experiments were established to evaluate the use of native, warm-season plants in forage-livestock systems using a pool of ten native species. The first, a large-scale, three-year, experiment tested three different NWSP mixtures (switchgrass monoculture, a four-grass mixture, and a ten-species mixture) and two management methods (grazed or biomass crop). Switchgrass monocultures had the lowest forage yield and highest weed biomass in both grazed areas and biomass crop exclosures. Analysis of forage nutritive value did not show many differences among mixtures, although the monoculture tended to have higher crude protein and lower fiber concentrations than the polycultures. Management method affected community composition, with NWSP richness higher and weed species richness lower in biomass crop exclosures than in grazed areas. A second experiment examined if species richness would enhance yields through a positive biodiversity effect. It employed additive partitioning to separate the selection effect (SE) from the complementarity effect (CE) by sowing random assemblages of NWSPs at five levels of richness into small plots. Species richness was associated with increased yields in the first year only, but overyielding and positive diversity effects were present in all three years. On average, over 50% of multi-species plots overyielded and 64% exhibited a positive biodiversity effect. Both SE and CE contributed to the biodiversity effect and the importance of each effect changed over time as communities became better established. All ten species were also individually analyzed for their yield potential, nutritive value, and elemental composition. Warm-season grasses tended to be higher-yielding but of lower nutritive value. All ten NWSPs contained sufficient concentrations of eleven elements to support nonlactating cows. These experiments demonstrated that diverse NWSP mixtures may be a valuable addition to both forage and bioenergy agroecosystems.

warm-season plants, diversity, forage, bioenergy