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  5. May 2019

Great Challenge 1: Economic Uncertainty

By Michael Udvardi, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer
and Hugh Aljoe, Director of Producer Relations

Posted May 1, 2019

One of the greatest challenges facing agriculture is economic uncertainty. We understand that if you, as a producer, can’t be profitable, your operation will not remain viable in the future. That’s a truth we cannot avoid when we’re working to help you along your journey as a land steward.

Many factors contribute to economic risk in agriculture, including:

  • Variable weather and climate change.
  • Other environmental threats like pests and pathogens.
  • Volatile markets.
  • Changing consumer demand.
  • Changes in government policy.

You don’t have a lot of control over these factors, however you can mitigate some of the risk to increase your chances of financial success. To help you, we are constantly looking for ways to make forage-based beef cattle systems more resilient and efficient.

Cow in pasture

Our research approach to helping you build resiliency in your operation begins by understanding how plants and their microbial helpers work to provide stress tolerance, and this process continues through to developing improved forages. We also test different management practices and new technologies on our research and demonstration farms and ranches. Below are a few of the projects we have in progress.

Researchers working in pasture

In the Laboratory and Field:

Understanding How Plants Work

Plant biologists are uncovering the molecular, genetic and physiological secrets that underlie plant traits such as drought-, heat- and cold-tolerance; nutrient- and water-use efficiency; disease resistance; and forage quality and yield. They are also developing genetic markers (essentially tagging specific beneficial genes) to more efficiently integrate new characteristics into improved plant varieties, confirm the genetic identity of specific plants with desirable traits, or verify that a new plant is truly a hybrid cross that combines beneficial traits from the plants used as parents. Researchers are working to:

Plant roots

1. Understand the structure and function of plant roots.

Roots are often overlooked in plant breeding, but they are essential because they support the whole plant and facilitate access to water and nutrients from the soil. Plant roots can develop different root system architecture and functional features in response to soil type, water and nutrient availability, microbial populations, and the plant’s genes. Researchers are uncovering how different root structures and functionalities affect whole plant performance in different agronomic systems. At the same time, they seek to determine which genes control these differences in root systems. Researchers are looking for ways to maximize the conversion of each drop of water to grow more biomass while increasing drought tolerance through deeper root systems capable of accessing water deeper in the soil.

Researcher working with plant roots

2. Understand how plants use nitrogen and phosphorus.

Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers increase plant growth and quality, but they come with economic and environmental costs, such as pollution. Together with plant breeders, plant biologists are working toward new plant varieties that more efficiently use nitrogen and phosphorus. These varieties will yield more forage and produce more beef per unit of fertilizer input while reducing fertilizer losses to the environment. They are also investigating soil bacteria and fungi that help plants acquire and use nitrogen and phosphorus.

Plant-microbe research in petri dish

3. Understand plant-microbe interactions, both good and bad.

Researchers are looking at the relationships between plants and microbes. Some of these are beneficial, including microbes that help with plant nutrition or confer environmental stress tolerance, for example a fungal endophyte that improves drought tolerance in tall fescue. Other microbes/pathogens cause problems for plants. Researchers are investigating plant disease resistance mechanisms and genes that could be used to protect plants (such as wheat, legumes and pecans) from pathogens that reduce productivity and profitability. For example, researchers are working to mitigate the impact of pecan scab disease on pecan nut production. They’re seeking a better understanding of how the fungal pathogen works, identifying genes for scab resistance, and experimenting with different ways of managing pecan orchards.

Plant Breeding:

Enhancing Forage Traits

Plant breeders are developing new forage varieties that are more resilient under challenging growing conditions. They are working to:

1. Improve tall fescue, a perennial cool-season grass.

Plant breeders are developing hybrids between Continental and Mediterranean varieties to produce more persistent, higher-yielding and drought-tolerant varieties.

2. Improve bermudagrass, a perennial warm-season grass.

Plant breeders are improving nitrogen-use efficiency and cold-tolerance of bermudagrass, which would allow it to be used in colder climates.

3. Improve small grains for forage production.

The small grains breeding program encompasses four cool-season annuals: wheat, rye, triticale and oats. Plant breeders are developing vigorous seedling growth, grazing-tolerant, high-yielding, high-quality grasses for beef cattle production. These small grains are also popular across the U.S. as cover crops. For example, Elbon rye is one of the most widely used cover crops in the corn and soybean belt.

4. Explore various annual legumes as potential cover crops.

Legumes are valuable as cover crops because, in addition to mitigating erosion, they contribute nitrogen to the soil for subsequent crops, a win-win for producer profitability and the environment. Researchers are working with other teams across the U.S. to identify the best legume(s) for each environment, and to optimize their beneficial characteristics through breeding and management to increase profitability and sustainability. Noble plant breeders are currently focused on hairy vetch, pea, clovers, cowpea and Tepary bean.

Forage Releases

  • Rye (Maton II and Bates RS4), oat (Heavy Grazer II and NF402), wheat (NF101) and triticale (NF201) varieties that provide fall forage.
  • Rye varieties (Maton, Oklon, and Elbon) that provide spring forage.
  • Continental tall fescue variety (Texoma MaxQII) for high-rainfall areas, east of I-35.
  • Mediterranean tall fescue variety (Chisholm) for dry areas, west of I-35.
  • White clover variety (Renovation) with a greater number of stolons that increase persistence.
  • Crabgrass variety (Impact) that is late-maturing with improved nutritive quality.
  • Wheatgrass variety (Plainsmen) with greater fall forage.

Researcher working with Triticale (NF201) in pastureTriticale (NF201)

Chisholm Tall FescueChisholm Tall Fescue

Renovation White CloverRenovation White Clover

Impact CrabgrassImpact Crabgrass

Plainsmen Tall WheatgrassPlainsmen Tall Wheatgrass

On-Ranch Research:

Optimizing Management

Researchers on our ranches are focused on optimizing management of both introduced forages and native range with a focus on land stewardship for beef cattle production and complementary enterprises such as wildlife and pecans.

Cattle researchers are working to develop more profitable stocker and cow-calf grazing systems using existing plant varieties as well as managing existing forage resources more effectively.

Chisholm Tall Fescue

Researchers are also working to improve pecan production yield, disease resistance and genetics, and to develop land stewardship practices based on sound ecological principles for managing wildlife and their habitats to increase profitability and ecosystem health. The research outcomes will translate into best management practices that will increase productivity, reduce uncertainty, and add long-term value to the land and enterprise operations. Researchers are working to:

1. Improve beef cattle production and profitability by investigating technologies for the beef industry, developing estrous synchronization and artificial insemination protocols, measuring lifetime cattle performance and health relative to genetics, and seeking cost-effective forage production solutions to carry growing cattle through finishing.

2. Research and develop improved management practices for irrigated and native pecan production systems; enhance livestock grazing in orchards; and advance knowledge of pecan genetics, physiology, germplasm and diseases.

3. Develop planning and decision-support tools by incorporating technology, sensors and remotely sensed data into domestic and wild animal research to determine behavior, feed efficiency, habitat use, animal health and population dynamics.

4. Research, control and mitigate the effects of invasive species and pests such as wild pigs, eastern red cedar, ashe juniper and pecan weevils.

5. Research and monitor rangeland health by conducting vegetation and soil sampling and through using remotely sensed data.

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