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Initial performance of red mulberry (Morus rubra L.) under a light gradient: an overlooked alternative livestock forage?

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Climate change creates uncertainty for the future of animal agriculture and forage productivity. The use of palatable shrubs that can be browsed directly as a mid-story component in silvopastures may be one way to diversify resources and mitigate losses in forage productivity. While white mulberry (Morus alba) has been widely studied for its fodder potential, there remains a paucity of information for the native, shade tolerant red mulberry (M. rubra). We report on the initial growth, survival, biomass, and leaf nutritive value of M. rubra seedlings planted under a cherrybark oak (Quercus pagoda) canopy at four overstory densities: 3 × 3 m (D), 6 × 6 m (S–D), 9 × 9 m (S–O), and 12 × 12 m (O). Despite drought conditions, 81.25% of seedlings survived, with more seedlings surviving in S–O and O than in D. As canopy openness increased, stem diameter increased and specific leaf area decreased. Seedlings obtained greatest leaf biomass in S–O. Late summer nutritive value surpassed the quality of many common pasture forages. Crude protein was greater in S–D and D than it was in S–O and O. Acid detergent fiber was greatest in D and digestibility metrics did not differ between treatments. Our results indicate that production of M. rubra fodder can be optimized on this site at 66.21% Global Site Factor, an irradiance level that corresponds to around 500 trees ha−1. More research is needed to determine seedling response to repeated defoliation events. Additionally, information is needed on secondary metabolites and other anti-quality components that may reduce the value of this potential alternative forage source.

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The datasets generated and analyzed during the current study are available upon reasonable request of the leading author.

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The code generated during the current study is available upon reasonable request of the leading author.


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This work would not have been possible without the generous support of a USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) grant. Special thanks to Jerry Van Sambeek, Barry Eschenbrenner, Aaron Templemire, Bo Young, Sam Sergent, and everyone else at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center (HARC) who provided invaluable support in the field. Also, thanks to Michael C. Stambaugh for lending his camera and fisheye lens for hemispherical photographs.


This study was funded by a grant provided by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

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Correspondence to Ryan Dibala.

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Dibala, R., Jose, S., Gold, M. et al. Initial performance of red mulberry (Morus rubra L.) under a light gradient: an overlooked alternative livestock forage?. Agroforest Syst 96, 565–576 (2022).

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