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Small Grains Big Promise

Posted Mar. 19, 2008

The Noble Research Institute's oldest research program continues to provide farmers new varieties of crops.
Rye field
Rye grains
Rye grains glisten in the evening sun. Rye is one of a handful of small grains being improved by the Noble Research Institute.

Aside from the pump jacks and drilling rigs that dot the landscape, there are perhaps no more iconic images of Oklahoma than pastures brimming with cattle and vast oceans of wheat swaying in the breeze. The latter is an image immortalized in the Rogers and Hammerstein song "Oklahoma," when they wrote, "And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain." It is appropriate then, that the longest running research project at the Noble Research Institute involves both livestock and small grains, including wheat.

"Early in the history of the Noble Research Institute, we recognized a need to have a small grain for fall and winter forage production," explained Wadell Altom, Senior Vice President and Director of the Agricultural Division. "Small grains are important in this region to meet the needs of livestock producers from mid-fall to spring when there aren't a lot of grazing options due to the dormancy of warm-season grasses."

The Noble Research Institute's small grains program focuses on four primary species: rye, wheat, oat and triticale, a rye/wheat hybrid. These annual grasses are typically planted around the middle of September and, depending on the species, their life cycle is completed between April and June of the following year.

"Perennial winter grasses those that return each year without replanting do exist, but not many are adapted to Oklahoma," said John Guretzky, Ph.D., Research Agronomist. "The ones that are available just won't produce the quantity of forage that we need."

Joe Bouton, Ph.D, Senior Vice President and Director of the Forage Improvement Division explained the key difference between the Noble Research Institute's small grains development programs and other similar programs found around the world.

"The breeding of small grains is probably the oldest agricultural project in the world. It would be hard to find a country on earth that doesn't have a breeding program especially when it comes to wheat, rye and oats," Bouton said. "The thing that is unique about our work at the Noble Research Institute is that we are not looking to increase grain production. We are looking to improve the plants for their forage qualities better fall production, the ability to recover after grazing and better forage yields. This distinguishes our program from those found at most universities and other research centers."

Altom agrees with Bouton's evaluation of the significance of the program. "Most of the research at universities before the 1950s focused only on grain yields," he said. "Before we began our work, area farmers just planted wheat for the grain. They would occasionally use some of it for forage, but it was mainly for the grain. Our research shifted the emphasis in this region to small grains grown primarily for the forage. It changed the way that ranchers looked at grain production."

Jerry Baker, Ph.D., has a long history with small grain breeding and evaluation at the Noble Research Institute. After accepting the research coordinator position in the Agricultural Division in 1990, he inherited the small grains program in 1993.

"When I came into this program, I stepped into a role to continue the work of my predecessors," Baker said. "I've always taken a lot of pride in being able to further develop the materials they gave me."

Roy Chessmore, Ph.D., also a Noble Research Institute research agronomist, initiated the program in the early 1950s. He developed Elbon rye, which was released in 1956. The release of the rye variety Elbon ("Noble" spelled backwards) proved to be a landmark event for the Foundation that was then just over a decade old.

"Elbon was so successful that people used the term to refer to any improved rye sort of like soft drinks and 'Coke,'" Altom said. "It was grown all the way to Florida. Because of it, the Noble Research Institute became known near and far for its improved small grains forage program. To this day, our specialists will go to a meeting and someone will say, 'Oh, y'all are the Elbon folks.' It still has that much impact 50 years later."

Chessmore continued to breed new varieties until he left in 1965. Richard Bates, Ph.D., then took over the work and released several improved varieties during his career.

Upon assuming responsibility for the program, Bates instituted the largest and most lasting change to the small grains program.

"In the growing season of 1966-1967, Dr. Bates started a series of forage variety tests using commercially available seed," Baker said. "Two years later, he also started to include some of the experimental ryes and oats that he had developed. We have continued to add experimental lines to the tests, but the trials have been going continuously since 1966."

Variety trial reports provide production information to farmers for both forage-only production and also for forage plus end-of-season grain harvest systems. The trials have continued to test both commercially available varieties and Noble Research Institute experimental varieties. The longevity of these evaluations and the critical data they provide is unparalleled.

Baker continued running the variety trials and served as the program's small grains forage breeder until his retirement in 2004.

"When Jerry Baker decided to retire, it made sense to transfer the development program to the Forage Improvement Division with their experience in plant breeding," Altom explained. "Under this arrangement, Forage Improvement develops the varieties while the Agricultural Division conducts the trials. By having a different division do the testing, you get more objectivity in the process. When they think they have something that looks promising, they hand that off to a research agronomist for the field trial. The agronomist compares the results of our varieties head-to-head against what is already commercially available."

Malay Saha, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Forage Improvement Division, assumed responsibility for the program's plant breeding and variety development. Although Saha's laboratory is equipped with the latest technology for genomic research, the small grains program continues as a traditional plant breeding program.

"I work to improve the small grains using the data handed down to me from my predecessors at the Noble Research Institute," Saha said. "We think there is still plenty of work to be done in the short run at least five years advancing the work through a conventional breeding approach. Genomic techniques may play a role in the future to help us select plants with desired characteristics, but the plant breeding will probably be done traditionally. The primary goal of our breeding program is to develop cultivars with early fall-winter forage potential and grazing tolerance."

Another of the program's current breeding goals is to get rye seeds to germinate at deeper planting depths. In mid-September when rye is planted for forage, Oklahoma generally experiences high temperatures and dry conditions. If the seed is planted shallow, it can be damaged by the elements. Deeper planting would allow the seeds to get moisture from the subsoil and germinate better. The program also works to produce awnless varieties of the grains.

"Awns are the bristles at the ends of the grain, and they can be an irritant to grazing cattle," Saha said. "Eliminating them would produce a better forage."

Grass breeding is a long-term process requiring patience and years of data. Developing a new variety takes a minimum of eight to 10 years, according to Saha.

Baker confirmed Saha's time estimation saying, "The rye variety that was released in 2006, Maton II, was from a cross that Dr. Bates had made before 1993. So, in terms of breeding, you are talking about more than a decade to select, screen, test and then release the variety."

Looking back, Baker said his research in small grains was always focused on producing a better product for the farmer.

"Early in my career, I spent a short time at a university where the saying, 'publish or perish' really applied," Baker said. "That certainly has its place, but, for me, I just wanted to help farmers. I had to see a practical application. That means that sometimes you have to get out with the farmers find out what they need. That is what is great about the Noble Research Institute. It has that connection with farmers that allows the researcher to get feedback."