Dr. Bill Biligetu (PhD)
Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program (SRP) Chair in Forage Crop Breeding
THE IMPORTANCE OF FORAGE: HOW FOOD FOR ANIMALS CAN HAVE A POSITIVE IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
(by Ashleigh Mattern)
Dust bowls are a major issue in Inner Mongolia. The dust storms can damage ecology, environment and agriculture, but their impact can be mitigated through different agriculture practices. These were some of the issues Associate Professor Bill Biligetu had in mind when he came to Canada to learn about forage crop breeding after completing an MSc in grassland management.
Biligetu grew up in Inner Mongolia in the northern part of China on a livestock farm where his family still grows forage. “We have a nomadic living style, and grassland forages are a key component of our life and culture,” he said.
His goal in coming to Canada was to learn how he could help the 5 million Mongolians in his home country. “My original intention was going back home, but that didn’t happen,” he said.
Instead, Biligetu started a family in Canada and stayed. He completed his Ph.D. in 2009 and worked with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and Saskatchewan Ministry Agriculture, then came to the Crop Development Centre (CDC) in 2014.
Through passing on the knowledge he’s gained, he has been able to help his family — his brothers have a cattle ranch, and he says they’re adopting some of his recommendations.
AN OLD PROGRAM WITH A BRIGHT FUTURE
The forage breeding program has a long history dating back to 1922. Biligetu says almost all Canadian bromegrass, crested wheatgrass, intermediate wheatgrass varieties are from this program. And those varieties are found not only in Canada, but in the northern part of the U.S., too.
The program was transferred to Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada in the 1940s but has been at the CDC and Department of Plant Sciences since 2005. Last year, the program released its first CDC brand forage, CDC Torsion meadow bromegrass.
The CDC forage breeding program strives to develop superior forage genetics adapted to western Canada, Biligetu said. It’s also important environmentally, as Biligetu recognized early on through his experience in his home country. “Perennial forage crops are crucial for improving soil nutrient levels, soil texture and regenerating the microbiome,” he said.
You can see the forage above ground growth, but below ground is where most of the plant resides. Biligetu said most perennial forage roots can grow two to three meters deep, while the roots of annual crops are only in the top portions of the soil.
Perennial forages can also improve soil health because the system causes very little disturbance to the soil, and it can improve soil aggregates and beneficial microbial growth.
“Perennial forage should be an important part of crop rotations,” Biligetu said. “When people are talking about crop rotation, the focus is on annual crops but there are long term benefits of perennials in crop rotations.”
Those deep roots also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration, Biligetu said. Climate change will also be putting future pressures on crop production, including higher soil salinity and a higher risk of drought.
Droughts are a historical reality in western Canada and are expected to be more common due to the effects of climate change. But Biligetu notes it’s been almost 100 years since the significant drought in the region.
“I’ve talked to many ranchers … and many of them told me they are not prepared for two years of severe drought.”
He expects his future breeding focus to be developing more stress tolerant forage species, ensuring forage can thrive on marginal land and drier environments.
Besides forage breeding, training students is also an important highlight of his work at CDC. He has trained nine graduate students in the seven years he’s been at the centre. “That’s an accomplishment when you see someone succeed,” he said.
“My program at the CDC, is one of very few forage programs providing graduate training. … This is important because if you look at other cereal crops or annual crops, there are many programs, but in forage there are few programs.”