Two new varieties of big bluestem prairie grass could boost beef cattle weight by as much as 50 lbs/head, according to USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and collaborating university scientists.

The beef weight gains come from grazing trials in eastern Nebraska. The trials compared the new releases – Bonanza and Goldmine – to the broadly adaptable Pawnee and Kaw varieties.

Such adaptability is especially important on marginal cropland used for cow-calf operations, where the animals draw nutrients from forage rather than from grains, notes Ken Vogel, who leads ARS' Wheat, Sorghum and Forage Research Unit in Lincoln, NE.

Yet Pawnee and Kaw were never specifically bred with forage quality in mind, says Vogel, a plant geneticist. Goldmine and Bonanza combine adaptability with improved forage quality. Vogel began breeding the big bluestems in 1977, and recently field-tested them in collaboration with ARS Lincoln rangeland scientist Robert Mitchell and University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Terry Klopfenstein and Bruce Anderson.

In pasture trials from 2000 to 2002, cattle that grazed the new big bluestems gained 18-50 lbs more per acre than those that grazed Pawnee and Kaw. The researchers estimate these gains could mean net-profit increases of $15 to more than $35/acre/year for beef producers. On marginal cropland, yearling steers that grazed pastures of Goldmine and Bonanza generated net profits of up to $119/acre. That's 2.4 times more profit than the producer would have earned from growing corn on the same land during the same years, according to the researchers' estimates.

Certified seed of Goldmine and Bonanza will become available in 2006.

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