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A Laboratory Like No Other

Posted Dec. 9, 2008

Billy Cook, Ph.D., consulting support research manager (left), and James Locke, soils and crops consultant, discuss forage quality during a recent farm visit.
Billy Cook, Ph.D., consulting support research manager (left), and James Locke, soils and crops consultant, discuss forage quality during a recent farm visit.
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It is an unseasonably warm fall afternoon, and Russ Gentry is navigating his mud-spattered Chevy pickup through a sea of emerald green winter pasture that rolls over hill after hill at the Noble Research Institute's Pasture Demonstration Farm.

Gentry serves as research operations manager for the Noble Research Institute's Agricultural Research Team. It's a hectic job that includes overseeing the daily workings of the seven farms scattered across southern Oklahoma (a total of 12,400 acres) that house the group's many research projects.

On this particular day, Gentry has added an additional duty to his normal regimen - tour guide. He wheels his truck around the 850-acre farm, showcasing key scientific undertakings that one day soon may directly impact regional farmers and ranchers. He points to fields where researchers are studying the effects of specific tillage systems on stocker cattle gain. He then drives a little further and points to a smattering of field trials where new cool-season perennial forages are being tested. As the tour rolls on, it soon becomes apparent that the land spread out before this truck is a living laboratory.

"The laboratories used by the Noble Research Institute's scientific groups have been recognized as premier facilities by many leading scientists throughout the world," Gentry said. "But these farms and the several others like them are the Agricultural Research Team's laboratory, and they are some of the best in the world as well. Of course, Mother Nature sometimes messes with our laboratories, but that's just part of what makes us unique."

A diverse team
In-field agricultural research has evolved in the Noble Research Institute's Agricultural Division since the 1950s. Originally, agricultural consultants conducted research projects in conjunction with their daily duties of assisting farmers and ranchers. In the last decade, however, requests for consultation dramatically increased, leaving little time for research. A solution was sought.

An Agricultural Research Team emerged from within the Agricultural Division - a unique group, but one still driven by the core consultation mission.

"We provide applied research results to our consultants so they can do a better job of assisting the farmers and ranchers they serve," said Billy Cook, Ph.D., consulting support research manager, who leads the Agricultural Research Team. "We receive feedback from the consultation teams about the agricultural issues that are important to area farmers and ranchers, and we give them the ability to get those answers. They ask the questions, then we approach it from a production and economic standpoint. This type of research wouldn't happen if we didn't do it."

To answer questions as diverse as the needs of regional agriculture, the division put in place a team focused on spanning the complete spectrum of agricultural topics, much like the multidisciplinary consultation teams. They assembled a group with expertise in livestock (John Blanton, Ph.D., and Cook, Ph.D.), agricultural economics (Jon Biermacher, Ph.D.), wildlife and fisheries (Ken Gee), agronomy (John Guretzky, Ph.D.), and soils and crops (Jagadeesh Mosali, Ph.D.).

With more than 35 additional staff members, the group now has the personnel and support system to perform applied research to complement the consultation program. Their findings also advance the work of researchers in the Noble Research Institute's Forage Improvement Division (FID), which contains similar personnel, such as agronomists, but there are some key distinctions.

The Agricultural Research Team usually (but not always) works on field-scale and farm-scale projects while FID researchers concentrate on small plots. The two groups often work jointly. Once a researcher in FID identifies a new trait, such as drought tolerance, incorporates the trait in improved forage varieties, and develops a management plan for evaluating it under field conditions, the project then moves to the Agricultural Research Team for large-scale testing and evaluation relative to existing forage systems.

"We have to ask ourselves: Is the new system or management practice more economical than what the producers do now?" said Jon Biermacher, Ph.D., research economist. "To get farmers and ranchers to adopt an alternative farming practice or a new plant variety, you have to show them that it is more economical than what they are doing now."

Seeking the right answers
Whenever a new project is proposed, the research team asks two fundamental questions: Will the results of the project have a direct impact on agricultural producers? And do we have the resources (i.e., facilities, labor, time and funding) to complete the project? (In addition to implementing and conducting applied agricultural research, the team also manages all the Noble Research Institute's land, research equipment and research support staff.)

"If the answers to both questions are yes, the team develops research questions just like any laboratory. These are the points we want to pursue," Cook said. "We put significant effort into the project design. These are designed, controlled experiments focused on collecting data to answer specific questions."

Most projects are conducted over three or more years to reduce the impact of abnormal growing seasons caused largely by unpredictable weather and, most importantly, they revolve around livestock. The cattle industry is the predominant agricultural industry in southern Oklahoma and north Texas with 2.8 million head of cattle and a million more calves continually cycling in and out of the region. The stocker cattle industry utilizes many of these calves in programs that are designed to add weight. This industry has historically been based on small grain forages to achieve this growth.

"Since we live in a region with a heavy emphasis on stocker cattle production, new varieties of forages must improve livestock gain, enhance forage production or quality, and be comparable economically to existing forage varieties or systems before a producer will consider making changes to their current systems," said John Guretzky, Ph.D., team agronomist.

Through a wide variety of projects, the group not only responds to questions posed by area farmers and ranchers, but they also can be proactive and seek answers to broader challenges otherwise not available to the agricultural community.

"We have the ability to initiate necessary projects and to do long-term applied research," Cook said. "Combine that with our multidisciplinary team approach and you see what makes us unique."

And the projects are as unique as the system and the researchers that create them.

From biofuel to bermudagrass
With the global push for renewable forms of energy, Guretzky and Biermacher find themselves with the arduous task of evaluating production-scale agronomics and economics of switchgrass, a native prairie grass with the potential to be a source for cellulosic ethanol.

Since switchgrass has not been thoroughly studied on this scale, Guretzky is assembling important data on plant responses to nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizer rates, and harvest management. Cook furthers the switchgrass effort by focusing the project through the livestock lens by studying how the grass might have a dual purpose as an early season forage crop for stocker cattle in addition to a bioenergy crop system.

"Without farmers and ranchers adopting switchgrass into their operations, there will never be a cellulosic biofuels industry," Cook said. "It is very much a chicken and egg type scenario. A company is not going to build an ethanol plant without the availability of the raw materials they need for production. On the other hand, no producer is going to produce this crop without an idea of how to economically benefit from it. We need to show the producers how this crop can fit into their current cattle production system to begin to establish a critical mass of switchgrass that may at a later time be used to produce ethanol."

In another project, Guretzky compares traditional pasture systems, which use nitrogen-fertilized bermudagrass, with a system that incorporates a legume mixture with bermudagrass. Legumes, such as alfalfa and hairy vetch, have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen into forms of nitrogen that benefit the legume and that can also be transferred to neighboring bermudagrass.

"With the dramatic rise in the cost of fertilizers, the implications of this study could be significant," Guretzky said. "A pasture system with legumes and bermudagrass might prove to be more profitable than the traditional bermudagrass-only system."

The various locations of the seven research farms play a role in each project by providing the team with a variety of growing conditions (soil type and rainfall) that mimic those that area agricultural producers might face. This diverse geography allows the team to accurately address a full range of challenges farmers and ranchers face each day.

"No two soils are alike in their morphology and other properties," said Jagadeesh Mosali, Ph.D. "Each soil type responds differently to fertilizer inputs. We need to understand the spatial and temporal variability, and use variable rate technology research to determine actual key factors, such as fertilizer rates."

Once a project has proven its mettle in production-scale field trials, the group moves it into the hands of farmers and ranchers. This provides a twofold opportunity.

"This allows us to see how they manage the trait. Can they get it established? Can they work with it?" said John Blanton, Ph.D. "So we're seeing it from the producer's point of view, but we're also continuing to collect data, while looking at the economics under real-world conditions."

Stewards of the land The Agricultural Research Team not only solves production agricultural problems, but works to fulfill the original mission of Lloyd Noble, who established the Noble Research Institute in 1945. Noble wanted his organization to help keep the land healthy and productive after watching the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl and poor farming practices in the early 20th century.

"We're not just looking at stocker cattle and forages, we're looking at how to perform production agriculture while managing the natural ranges responsibly," Guretzky said. "Production makes money and that's important, but what about the sustainability? We're looking at where we can be profitable, but still conserve the land. This is where the wildlife research comes into play."

Wildlife projects fall under the purview of Ken Gee, who, for almost three decades, has conducted deer management and prescribed burning studies vital to sustaining regional natural habitat.

Gee's prescribed burning has proven effective for controlling brush and invasive eastern red cedars while also rejuvenating vegetation growth. One of his more recent studies uses patch burning, where one-third of a pasture is burned annually to promote new growth and provide better forages for livestock and wildlife. The 10-year burning project will help Gee and Guretzky evaluate vegetative response and productivity, as well as its impacts on wildlife and livestock. The study is a forward-thinking attempt to show the positive combination of patch burning and proper grazing management.

"We have to predict what's important in the future," Gee said. "That's also part of being a good steward of our land resources."

Providing for the basics Underscoring each field project, including those by the Agricultural Research Team and FID, is Gentry's crew. They prepare soil and build fencing for the small plots and help manage the larger scale projects. They maintain more than 300 major pieces of equipment, oversee irrigation and tend to the health of the Noble Research Institute's livestock. When genetically similar cattle were needed for forage tests, they bred them. When data needs collecting, they are there with clipboards and laptops. And when tours need to be led, they swing open a pickup door and head to their laboratory.

As this tour came to an end, Gentry steered his truck back toward the main road and headed for home. Silence filled the cab for just a second and then Gentry said, "The way I see it, this all starts with a question, and then we go through this process and these resources provide the answers."