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Building better forages

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Capitalizing on a sophisticated process of moving science from the laboratory to the field, the Noble Research Institute is creating the blueprint for forage improvement.
Building better forages
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For scientists and agricultural specialists at Noble Research Institute, forage research is not just a job; it's a way of life. And when they say "life," they mean life for everybody on Earth.

"Grasses directly or indirectly feed the majority of the humans and livestock on the planet," said Joe Bouton, Ph.D., Senior Vice President and Director of the Forage Improvement Division at the Noble Research Institute. "They also sustain rangelands, impact industries and economies, and contribute to the very air we breathe. Not many people would consider research on grasses, especially using grasses in forage and livestock systems, to be glamorous, but it may be some of the most influential research to our world."

The Noble Research Institute houses 18 laboratories and an agricultural research team dedicated to plant science research with an emphasis on the improvement of forages (plants used for hay or grazing by livestock) with the focus on grasses and legumes.

The pursuit of forage improvement resides at the core of the Noble Research Institute's original mission to assist agricultural producers in Oklahoma and North Texas. While the Noble Research Institute addresses regional agricultural needs, the knowledge generated from the scientific process impacts plant science on a national and global stage.

"One outcome of the Noble Research Institute's research is providing tangible products to the region's forage-based agricultural producers," Bouton said. "While this seems like a narrow focus, it is actually a platform for a broad exploration. Forage research requires a critical mass of expertise in the fields of biochemistry, genetics, genomics, plant breeding, metabolic engineering, cell biology and transformation. The Noble Research Institute coordinates these fields of research to focus on a specific target - forages, but the research also has broader scientific applications."

The Noble Research Institute's efforts to build better forages reaches back more than six decades. It's a story that begins with one man's vision ... and some finicky soil.

Lloyd Noble and the land
Pioneering oilman and philanthropist Lloyd Noble established the Noble Research Institute in 1945 to assist with soil conservation in Oklahoma. By supporting the stewards of natural resources through education and practical services, such as soil testing, Noble hoped to inspire improved farming practices regionally.

In the early 1960s, the Noble Research Institute ventured into forage improvement for the first time when agricultural specialists and plant breeders helped develop and integrate new varieties of cereal rye able to grow in soil with low pH levels. At the time, the decreased pH levels cut into the production of wheat, the main small grain forage industry. Throughout the next three decades, the Noble Research Institute introduced five new varieties of cereal rye, which, in turn, caused a secondary effect on the region. Rye could also be used as a winter pasture, giving area agricultural producers a never-before-tapped resource.

"This was a nontraditional enterprise that they had never considered before," said Hugh Aljoe, consulting program manager for the Agricultural Division. "The impact can still be seen today."

By providing farmers and ranchers with rye, southern Oklahoma and North Texas became a staging ground for winter stocker cattle. Today, the cattle industry remains the prominent agricultural enterprise in the region with more than 2.8 million head of cattle.

"If you were to take a 100-mile radius around Ardmore and make it a state, it would be the fifth largest cattle producing state in the country," said Billy Cook, Ph.D., Senior Vice President and Director of the Agricultural Division. "The Noble Research Institute's mission is to assist agricultural producers in that region. If those farmers and ranchers are primarily focused on cattle, then it only makes sense that we work to provide them hardier, higher quality forages."

Said Aljoe, "Forages, such as grasses, are the basis for our entire agricultural industry. If you are in cattle, you have to be a grass farmer first. It's the initial product that has to be captured and transferred into a marketable product, either through beef or hay."

Today, the Noble Research Institute's work with forages centers on two specific forage families, grasses and legumes. Working in concert, these forages provide a host of possibilities for regional agricultural producers and play a fundamental role in the agriculture industry. More so, these two forage families significantly impact the majority of Earth's population - even though they may not know it.

Forages for everyone
Grasses seem commonplace, but look a little closer and their global impact is obvious. First, grasses, including forage grasses, equal 25 percent of the world's vegetation. Secondly, each of the six inhabitable continents possesses vast grasslands from the prairies of North America and the veldts of Africa to Asia's steppes and South America's pampas.

"The importance of forage grasslands to the global ecology is obvious by their world-wide presence," Bouton said. "Forage grasses fill many large and diverse niches in our society and clearly serve as the base for our food chain."

Forages as crops are indispensable components to farmers worldwide. Forage grasses possess a natural adaptive ability that allows them to persist in a variety of environments. In the United States, forage grasses cover five times more acreage than of all cereal grain crops combined.

While legumes, such as alfalfa, soybean and clover, are not as widespread as their grass cousins, they play a key role in cropping systems. Legumes contain higher protein and produce a significant amount of nitrogen, making them an economical and environmentally-important resource.

"Forage crops are the most sustainable crops that can be grown," said Beth Nelson, President of the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance. "Forages provide a host of benefits to the environment and play an integral role in maintaining soil productivity by reducing soil erosion, providing essential organic matter, and, in the case of legumes like alfalfa, fixing nitrogen and returning it to the soil. When included in a managed crop rotation, forages also reduce the need for costly pesticides as they disrupt the natural cycle of weeds and insects."

Forages' economic implications are broad reaching as well. A recent Agriculture Research Service (ARS) report concluded that forages and grassland agriculture provide between 60 and 90 percent of the feedstocks consumed by livestock. According to Nelson, this contribution allows the forage industry to claim a portion of the $49 billion and $90 billion the cattle/calf industry and the dairy industry, respectively, contribute to the national economy each year. Alfalfa alone contributes more than $7.5 billion to the national economy.

"These figures do not take into consideration other forage industry contributions to the economy, such as equipment purchased, jobs created, wages earned and the corresponding multipliers which accompany them," Nelson said. "Although it is difficult to quantify the contributions of any one industry to the economy, the impact of forages on the national economy is significant, easily reaching into the billions of dollars."

Beyond food and finances, forages serve a vital function in the air cycle, producing oxygen for humans and sequestering carbon.

"We don't have forests here so something has to fill the air-cycle need and that's forages and grasslands," Aljoe said. "They handle the bulk of carbon sequestration in many areas around the world."

Forages also provide a specific function for the arid Great Plains and similar global regions.

"We've been as dry in recent history as the Dust Bowl days, but the difference is we have a lot of land covered with grasslands and forages," Aljoe said. "This is a tribute to the Noble Research Institute and other area conservation groups that have worked to protect the land."

The Noble Research Institute continues its efforts to secure the future of the land and assist farmers and ranchers through the improvement of key traits within forage legumes and grasses. While grasses possess a natural adaptive ability, they exhibit lower energy and protein outputs than other plants and require a steady diet of nitrogen. On the other hand, legumes have higher protein and fix their own nitrogen, but are less hardy. Noble Research Institute researchers and agricultural specialists seek to improve the traits that affect forage and animal productivity, as well as improve methods for managing the integration of the two crops into a production agriculture system.

The Noble Research Institute has undertaken a "whole system" approach to this effort, conducting research in genomics, metabolic engineering, plant-microbe interactions, cell and developmental biology, plant breeding, plant transformation, as well as complementary applied research in production agriculture.

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