In 1997, the Forage Improvement Division was established at the Noble Research Institute. It was challenged to start a program that focused on the development of perennial winter forages that could serve as high-quality, cost-reducing substitutes for annually produced winter forages. In response to this challenge, grass breeders set forth to develop cool-season perennial grass varieties. The possible advantage from a perennial winter forage system for stocker animals is the potential to substantially reduce fuel and machinery costs, which continue to rise each year. A recognized disadvantage is the challenge associated with successful establishment of cool-season perennial forages in the first year.
Substantial work in this area led to the development of tall fescue with a novel, non-toxic endophyte. The initial agronomic research has shown promising results for yield, persistence and quality performance. Before this tall fescue could be recommended to producers, however, it needed to be tested for its economic potential in an actual on-farm grazing system relative to the conventional winter pasture system prevalent for the region. So, in fall 2005, researchers in Noble's Agricultural and Forage Improvement divisions teamed up to develop an on-farm experiment that had the objective of determining whether or not the novel fescue system could compete economically with a conventional winter rye/ryegrass grazing system.
The experiment was developed by researchers who specialize in forage management, stocker management and agricultural economics. The design of the experiment was very straightforward, including only two systems: an annual winter rye/ryegrass grazing system that reflects the typical conventional operation in the region and the perennial tall fescue with a novel endophyte. This experiment is located on the Noble Research Institute's Headquarters Farm. Each summer, the soil is prepared in order to plant the winter annual pasture, while the perennial tall fescue will only be planted one time. The tall fescue system is believed to be a more sustainable system over time.
Preliminary results of the experiment favor the conventional annual rye system over the tall fescue perennial system. However, several discoveries were made. First, the tall fescue established well in the first year. This result is remarkable given that the tall fescue was established in one of the driest autumns in Oklahoma history. Second, by resting these established paddocks in the fall, the tall fescue recovered from one of the driest summers on record. Initially, it appeared that the tall fescue had died, but, after autumn rainfall, it started to recover. Currently, both systems are being grazed, but, as a result of the drought, the tall fescue lagged in production behind the winter pasture for the first two seasons. We plan to extend this research over a number of years in order to determine how long it takes a perennial system to "catch up." This will allow us to separate out the effects of uncontrollable growing conditions (e.g., rainfall) on the net profitability between the two systems.
The tall fescue research project demonstrates the unique interaction and ability of these research groups to collaborate, providing the necessary feedback that allows research to flow from the laboratory to the producer's field. The benefits from this cross-divisional effort are twofold. First, the results of the project can be conveyed directly to interested producers via the Ag Division's consultation and educational programs. Second, results and discoveries from the experiment can flow back to breeders and other production scientists, allowing them to modify the technology in a way that will enable the further advancement of the system. As additional forage varieties and plant technologies are developed at the Noble Research Institute, the number of cross-divisional experiments will expand, leading the way for providing advanced opportunities to farmers and ranchers operating in the region.