Forgotten Treasures: As Pastures and Lawns Wither in the Grip of the Extended Drought, Native Grasses, Maligned by Pastoralists since -Colonial Times, Are Showing Their Remarkable Pedigree and Potential for Australian Conditions. Researcher and Businessman Ian Chivers Is Championing Their Strong Credentials for Both Suburban and Rural Applications
O'Neill, Graeme, Ecos
As an agronomy student at the University of Melbourne in the 1970s, Ian Chivers was taken aback by a lecturer's patent contempt for native grasses. 'He'd thump the desk and say the sooner we got rid of our useless native grasses, and replaced them with exotic grasses, the better.'
But Chivers says graziers and agronomists in the '70s, and earlier decades, typically only saw native pastures that were already severely overgrazed. Cattle and sheep had already devoured the highly palatable native species, leaving the dross.
'Had they seen ungrazed native pastures, they might have thought differently" he asserts.
He feels that few critics back then had stopped to consider the obvious--that after tens of millions of years of adaptation to aridity, highly unpredictable rainfall and nutrient-depleted soils, Australia's native grasses might actually be superior to imported species, particularly in periods of climatic adversity.
The pastoral industry's early preference for exotic forage grasses has left large swathes of Australia's agricultural lands covered in drought-vulnerable grass species. With the trend towards drier conditions across temperate Australia, the sector faces increasing risk.
Furthermore, some imported perennials, such as paspalum, prairie grass and Texas needle grass, have become invasive weeds, along with chance invaders like serrated tussock and feathergrass that have flourished in the absence of the herbivores, pests and pathogens with which they evolved. So too has the popular lawn grass Kikuyu.
A taste for native grasses
In 1988, Chivers made a life-changing discovery in a drought-affected paddock in the outer northern Melbourne suburb of Craigieburn.
At the time, south-east Australia was in the grip of another severe El Nino event that had reduced the introduced annual ryegrass pasture in the Craigieburn paddock to brown, desiccated tufts. Among them was a patch of verdant green--a deep-rooted native grass, later identified as Microlaena stipoides, flourishing in a rocky outcrop.
So began Chivers' interest in the resilience and qualities of native grasses, one that led him to set up Native Seeds Pty Ltd, a member of the Grain Foods Cooperative Research Centre (GFCRC).
At GFCRC's stand at ABIC (Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference) in 2006, Chivers tempted delegates with small delicious muffins baked from the flour of the same Australian native cereal he had come across 18 years before.
Microlaena--commonly known as weeping grass, weeping rice grass or meadow rice grass--is indeed a relative of rice, the world's no. 1 human food crop. However, the flour made from the native grass seed has much higher protein levels than any of the 'Big Three' cereals. When Chivers had Microlaena's protein content analysed, it was 22 per cent, compared with only 9 per cent for rice, 12-14 per cent for the best hard wheats, and up to 18 per cent for high-protein hybrid maize varieties.
Selecting a form of Microlaena suitable for grain production, Chivers used criteria such as seed-head architecture, improved seed retention--an essential characteristic for any harvested grain--and robust, upright stems.
The seed, which resembles miniature long-grain rice, is relatively large for an Australian grass, but about half the size of domesticated rice or wheat--both products of millennia of human selection for size and yield. As Chivers says, weeping grass has not undergone selection or breeding for larger seed size.
'It's not a finished product. We've still got a long way to go--it's probably about 60 per cent of the way to domestication. We now need a strong, systematic breeding program.
'We've got it growing at eight locations across the NSW and Victorian cereal belt. We're in the early stages of pushing it out into the market--the ultimate destination is the supermarket. …