Farming authorities are hoping to reduce the amount of water used to produce animal feed in Abu Dhabi within the next three years.
Grass that's always green but never thirsty
ABU DHABI // Salt-tolerant plants could help to greatly reduce the amount of water needed to grow animal feed within three years.
A project launched last month by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) and United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain is part of a long effort to find a substitute for the thirsty Rhodes grass.
The plant was until recently grown on farms across the country.
After 10 years of trials, regional research centres last month started using the substitutes on farms.
"The idea was to collect regional plants, classify them and use the Bedouin's knowledge to find out which were good for animals," said Dr Ahmed Moustafa, the regional coordinator of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda) in Syria.
"Our main goal was to identify a plant that used less water than Rhodes."
Rhodes grass was widely grown until the Government halted its planting in 2010. Before then it accounted for three of every five litres of water used in agriculture.
"Agriculture consumes 48 per cent of the UAE's water and 60 per cent of that was used to produce Rhodes grass for animal forage," said Saeed Jasim Mohamed, the acting communications director of the ADFCA.
"What are now needed are forage production systems that can utilise the UAE's abundant brackish water resources."
Icarda's results showed the most promising plant for the region was Cenchrus ciliaris, an extremely drought-tolerant grass.
Found in hot and dry parts of India, in tropical and southern Africa and the Mediterranean, it needs less than a third of the water Rhodes grass requires.
"It's always green, even during the summer, whereas Rhodes experiences difficulties in hot weather," said Dr Moustafa.
In 2003, a seed-technology laboratory was set up in the UAE. Five years later, it began providing seeds to more than 150 farms in Dubai, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah and Abu Dhabi.
Farmers quickly noticed they were using much less water, Dr Moustafa said.
"It's an easy way to grow grass and a valuable plant because forage consumes a huge amount of water," he said. "We're hoping it will become a national project."
Meanwhile, Dubai's International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture has spent eight years perfecting a system that feeds various saline environments.
Last month, it started working with the Farmers' Services Centre, a government body tasked with modernising Abu Dhabi's farms, to install its system on three farms in the Western Region.
The amount of salt in the soil varies between farms. Salty soil is trickiest, as not many plants tolerate it. But two varieties - Distichlis spicata and Sporobolus virginicus - were found to grow well. Neither is available locally, so they come from Oman, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
"They can absorb more salt than other plants," said Dr Faisal Taha, the centre's director of technical programmes. "They also have the ability to leave the salt behind so they can be used as direct animal feed."
Distichlis and Sporobolus are also well suited to sheep, goats and camels.
A one-hectare farm can annually generate 100 tonnes of green matter, or 35 tonnes of dry feed, which can cater for up to 245 animals. The plants take four months to mature and can then be cut every three months, giving a continuous, sustainable supply.
Other grasses are better for farms with less saline soils. These include Atriplex, which accumulates salt but is available locally, Lasiurus scindicus, Panicum, Sorghum, Cenchrus ciliaris and pearl millet. All are cut once a year, producing 100 tonnes of grass from a one-hectare farm.
ADFCA's scientists collected a total of 150 wild plants last month from extreme-climate areas such as sabhkas - flat coastal areas where the soil is crusted with salt - tidal areas and the inner desert.
Icarda already provides seeds to Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE.
Dr Moustafa believes the Ministry of Environment and Water will use the project's results across the country, hopefully by next year.
"The earlier they do it, the better because they will save a lot of water," said Dr Moustafa.