Monday, November 30, 2009

Bison and seasonal protein

Forage crude protein concentrations (%N * 6.25) for male and female bison over the season from Konza.

Bison are the largest native grazers in North America left. Their history is interesting, having almost gone extinct with the Pleistocene megafauna, and not having evolved into their modern form until about six to eight thousand years ago. Most of the attention on the evolution of the animals has been regarding changes in their morphology. Most of the attention to the modern animals has been their genetics and the introgression of cattle genes—finding “pure” bison. Most of the interest in their modern ecology has been on their role as a keystone in ecosystems.

Almost entirely missing from the study of modern bison has been their nutrition. There has been some work on diet—do they eat forbs or grasses; cool- or warm-season grasses. Yet, animals that ranged throughout North America and never had access to grasses like the progenitors of modern cattle would have found in northern Europe would likely face strong nutritional stress throughout much of the year. The adaptations of bison to low forage quality, no less the basic patterns of the availability of energy and protein to bison have gone all but unasked.

At Konza, Gene Towne has been collecting fecal material throughout 2009. Every two weeks, he has collected fresh pies from both males and females. Then we send the samples off to Texas A&M’s GANLab to see what the crude protein (nitrogen) and digestible organic matter (energy) was of the grass that they were eating.

If you look at the patterns from 2009, a few fascinating patterns stand out. First, the minimum protein requirements for mass gain for cattle are about 6% crude protein. Bison at Konza have about 100 day window to gain mass during the growing season. After that, there is little protein available beyond what is required for maintenance.

Second, the differences between males and females has never been observed before. Males tend to form “bachelor” herds and do their own thing until the rut—roughly August. After that, they often go off on their own again. The CP patterns show that the males are not selecting as high a quality forage early in the season, but the peak is broader. During the rut, quality is about the same as females. Afterwards, the males are selecting lower quality forage than the females. Why? Why wouldn’t the males feed in the same places on the higher forage quality. A mystery right now.

Lastly, by mid-October, CP had dropped to roughly 4.5%. Not much good green out there for anyone. Gene’s found that the bison lose about 10% of their weight during the winter, which can be up to 200 pounds for the large males. We’re beginning to see why.

Hopefully, data like this will continue to be taken at Konza for a couple of years. It’ll be fascinating to see the differences between wet and dry years on forage quality. With any luck, we can start similar measurements at a number of other TNC sites with bison to being broader comparisons.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Climate change and cattle nutritional stress

If you read the latest IPCC report, there is little text on the potential effects of climate change on cattle performance. Considering there are more than 1 billion head of cattle in the world with probably about a trillion dollars in value, small changes in their performance would have large economic effects.

Here’s what the IPCC had to say about climate change and forage quality:

New Knowledge: Changes in forage quality and grazing behaviour are confirmed. Animal requirements for crude proteins from pasture range from 7 to 8% of ingested dry matter for animals at maintenance up to 24 % for the highest-producing dairy cows. In conditions of very low N status, possible reductions in crude proteins under elevated CO2 may put a system into a sub-maintenance level for animal performance (Milchunas et al., 2005). An increase in the legume content of swards may nevertheless compensate for the decline in protein content of the non-fixing plant species (Allard et al., 2003; Picon-Cochard et al., 2004). The decline under elevated CO2 (Polley et al., 2003) of C4 grasses, which are a less nutritious food resource than C3 (Ehleringer et al., 2002), may also compensate for the reduced protein content under elevated CO2. Yet the opposite is expected under associated temperature increases (see Section Large areas of upland Britain are already colonised by relatively unpalatable plant species such as bracken, matt grass and tor grass. At elevated CO2 further changes may be expected in the dominance of these species, which could have detrimental effects on the nutritional value of extensive grasslands to grazing animals (Defra, 2000).

In all, there really wasn’t all that much that we knew about the topic.

I won’t go into detail here, but here's the latest press release from Kansas State on the Global Change Biology paper that I mentioned in an earlier post on the Wisconsin Paradox. I think that the next IPCC report should be able to say a little bit more…


MANHATTAN -- Kansas State University's Joseph Craine, research assistant professor in the Division of Biology, and KC Olson, associate professor in animal sciences and industry, have teamed up with some other scientists from across the United States to look into the possible effects of climate change on cattle nutrition.
Comparing grasslands and pastureland in different regions in the U.S., the study, published in Global Change Biology, discusses data from more than 21,000 different fecal samples collected during a 14-year period and analyzed at the Texas A&M University Grazingland Animal Nutrition Lab for nutritional content.
"Owing to the complex interactions among climate, plants, cattle grazing and land management practices, the impacts of climate change on cattle have been hard to predict," said Craine, principal investigator for the project.
The lab measured the amount of crude protein and digestible organic matter retained by cattle in the different regions. The pattern of forage quality observed across regions suggests that a warmer climate would limit protein availability to grazing animals, Craine said.
"This study assumes nothing about patterns of future climate change; it's just a what if," Olson said. "What if there was significant atmosphere enrichment of carbon dioxide? What would it likely do to plant phenology? If there is atmospheric carbon dioxide enrichment, the length of time between when a plant begins to grow and when it reaches physiological maturity may be condensed."
Currently, cattle obtain more than 80 percent of their energy from rangeland, pastureland and other sources of roughage. With projected scenarios of climate warming, plant protein concentrations will diminish in the future. If weight gain isn't to drop, ranchers are likely going to have to manage their herds differently or provide supplemental protein, Craine said.
Any future increases in precipitation would be unlikely to compensate for the declines in forage quality that accompany projected temperature increases. As a result, cattle are likely to experience greater nutritional stress in the future if these geographic patterns hold as a actual example of future climates, Craine said.
"The trickle-down to the average person is essentially thinking ahead of time of what the consequences are going to be for the climate change scenarios that we are looking at and how ranchers are going to change management practices," Craine said.
"In my opinion these are fully manageable changes," Olson said. "They are small, and being prepared just in case it does happen will allow us to adapt our management to what will essentially be a shorter window of high-quality grazing."
Additional investigators on the project include Andrew Elmore at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science and Doug Tolleson from the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona, along with the assistance of Texas A&M's Grazingland Animal Nutrition Lab.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why be efficient? A question for C4 plants

C4 grassland in South Africa with a 1.7 m Carl Morrow for scale.

Species with the C4 photosynthetic pathway are in the minority in terms of species, but fix a large amount of the world's carbon, not to mention world's calories that humans consume.
Species with the C4 photosynthetic pathway differ from C3 species in a number of ways. We know that the C4 photosynthetic pathway evolved, or at least radiated during times of declining atmospheric CO2 concentrations. In accordance, C4 species have higher photosynthetic rates at glacial CO2 concentrations (~200 ppm) than C3 species. Therefore, it is generally thought to be an evolutionary response to low CO2 concentrations. In conditions of high light, low CO2, and warm temperatures, the C4 pathway reduces photorespiration and generates greater photosynthetic rates over C3 species.

Yet, the C4 photosynthetic pathway also confers greater resource use efficiency. The C4 pathway comes with increased energetic costs, but also confers greater photosynthetic water use and nitrogen use efficiency. More carbon is fixed in C4 species per unit water and nitrogen allocated to photosynthesis as internal CO2 concentrations are lower, which drives the greater WUE, and less N is needed for the same amount of photosynthesis, which drives greater NUE.

Some of the characteristics of C4 are a bit mythological. For example, although C4’s can have higher photosynthetic nitrogen use efficiency, many C4’s have high tissue N concentrations and many C3’s have as low an N concentration as the lowest C4. Not everything about plants is destined from photosynthetic properties.

That said, is there selective advantage to being more efficient with resources? Efficiency always comes at a cost. This much we know. You have to be inefficient with one resource to be more efficient with another. Light use efficiency comes at the expense of N use efficiency. N use efficiency comes at the expense of water use efficiency. Efficiency also costs time.

So what is the benefit of being efficient? For C4’s, under what conditions is it beneficial to be more efficient with water or nitrogen than C3’s. In a competitive world, efficiency in and of itself benefits no one but your competitors. The less water or nitrogen you use, the more there is for another. The benefit only comes if efficiency allows one to reduce the availability of the limiting resource below the level needed to sustain a potential competitor. Or tolerate more stressful conditions. Do C4’s reduce water or nitrogen availability to lower levels than C3’s? No evidence of that. Do C4’s tolerate lower water or nitrogen availability than C4’s? No evidence of that, either.

We also know that C4’s span a wide range of water and nitrogen availability. NADP-me type C4’s increase with mean annual precipitation, not decrease. And C4’s like the grasses we use in many lawns and golf courses have high nutrient requirements, not low, having evolved in grazing lawns that have high nutrient availability. In all, there is no evidence that C4’s preferentially occupy low water or low nitrogen habitats.

The efficiency of C4 species is one of the great mysteries of evolution. Is it an interesting by-product of selection for carbon gain under certain conditions? Or is it indirectly linked to success in ways that are not obvious? Likely, until we better understand the fundamental question of “Who wins and why?” in the plant world, that aspect of C4’s will still be a mystery.