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No Rain on the Plains

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Noble Research Institute offers assistance, continues research for drought-stricken Southern Great Plains

"Every time (agriculture faces a challenge), our farmers and ranchers fight back through their determination and ingenuity, and the Noble Research Institute has been right there fighting beside them."

Billy Cook, Ph.D.,
agricultural division director

  • Photos

Every step Creede Speake takes through the sun-scorched wheat stubble produces a rhythmic crunch followed by the cascading rat-tat-tat of fleeing grasshoppers raining back to Earth.

Step. Crunch. Rat-tat-tat. Step. Crunch. Rat-tat-tat. This is the soundtrack of drought.

On a midafternoon in early August, Speake left behind his air-conditioned bungalow to examine the drought ravaged pastures that make up his 6,800-acre ranch near Milo, Okla.

With the truck's electronic gauges registering the outside temperature at 112 degrees, all Speake could think about was his land. "She doesn't have on her Sunday best, that's for sure," said Speake, surveying the fields he's ranched since 1946.

"I've got nothing but dry, nasty looking ground."

Speake stopped to check a cluster of cattle bunched under a thick grove of shade trees and then spotted a lone oak covered in grasshoppers. "Grasshoppers hate oak trees," he said. "They must be getting desperate, too."

Driving deeper into Speake's property, the former World War II fighter pilot pointed to each pond, some with small pools of water surrounded by cracked earth, some completely dry. "If anybody ever told me we'd run out of water on this place, I would have laughed at them," Speake said. "We have three spring-fed creeks, and we built our ponds right. This just isn't a good year for us, for anybody."

In fact, this has not been a normal year, an average year or even a bad year when it comes to precipitation or heat. No, 2011 will be remembered as one of the greatest droughts ever recorded in the Southern Great Plains. "It is absolutely the worst I've ever seen," Speake said.

He should know. At 87 years old, he has endured some of history's severest regional droughts. As a boy, he lived through the Dust Bowl. A few years after he began ranching, he survived the blistering heat of 1956 - the standard-bearer for 20th century droughts. And in 1980, he outlasted his third, once-in-a-lifetime drought. "None of those years - absolutely none - compare to this year," he said. "And I don't see it getting better anytime soon."

The La Niña Effect
The 2011 drought actually began in fall 2010 with the arrival of a La Niña weather pattern, an abnormal cooling of the Pacific Ocean that prevents moisture from reaching the southern portion of the United States. "We've experienced similar weather patterns in the past," said Billy Cook, Ph.D., senior vice president and director of the Agricultural Division. "However, the intensity and duration of this one is much more severe. We came out of winter with very low soil moisture levels and pond levels. That set the stage for the extreme situation we are experiencing now."

The drought now encompasses 14 states from Florida to Arizona with Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana experiencing the most extreme conditions. By the end of July, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared 74 of Oklahoma's 77 counties natural disaster areas. The USDA had already proclaimed all 254 counties in Texas natural disaster areas the month before.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, the entire state of Oklahoma is experiencing a severe drought, and more than 88 percent is in extreme or exceptional drought, the highest level possible. (Exceptional drought is defined as widespread crop/pasture loss and shortages of water, creating emergencies.) Comparatively, only about 5 percent of Oklahoma faced anything more than moderate drought conditions at this same time last year.

South of the Red River, more than 91 percent of Texas is in extreme or exceptional drought. Texas climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said that if the drought continues through the fall, it will be the worst one in state history since recordkeeping began in 1895.

As a result of the prolonged drought, agricultural producers have experienced dramatic yield reductions. Hugh Aljoe, pasture and range consultant with the Noble Research Institute, estimated most crops have produced only about 25 percent of last year's totals, with some producers experiencing almost complete crop losses as in the case of wheat farmers.

For livestock producers, the drought has been particularly distressing. Conditions have reduced or eliminated vital water resources and destroyed forages integral for grazing. Texas and Oklahoma combine to produce more than 20 percent of the beef cattle in the United States. However, without forages for grazing or a supply of hay for this winter, many are forced to destock.

"Usually producers feed beef cattle with hay for about 80 to 90 days during the winter months," Aljoe said. "Because pastureland is now virtually unusable, they will end up feeding more than 200 days on hay this fall and winter. However, hay is scarce and expensive so many producers are selling their cattle early. With more and more destocking in the region, the market will flood and prices will drop."

Beginning in July 2011, the Noble Research Institute's agricultural consultants were inundated with hundreds of calls, each asking a version of the same question: How am I going to survive this? The Noble Research Institute consultants and researchers were ready with answers.

Lloyd Noble's Legacy
The Noble Research Institute's origins are linked to one of the most infamous droughts - the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Philanthropist Lloyd Noble established the organization in 1945 after witnessing the devastation on the Great Plains. Throughout the decades, Noble's agricultural consultants have assisted thousands of producers through every imaginable natural and economic disaster. "We are uniquely equipped with the expertise and experience to help farmers and ranchers survive and recover from these extreme situations," Cook said. "We provide educated counsel and bring much needed perspective, and do it all without charging a penny. We're Lloyd Noble's legacy."

Noble's agricultural consultants approach each drought-related phone call or farm visit like triage physicians, assessing the specific problems, then mapping out financially feasible solutions. Each operation is unique, but the advice remains consistent.

"The industry is in a different market situation today than it has been in past droughts," Cook said. "Producers must develop a well thought out plan with multiple contingencies, while focusing on long-term objectives."

Technology has aided the Noble Research Institute's quest to quickly aid producers across the drought-stricken Great Plains. With a growing need to supply immediate, comprehensive advice to thousands of farmers and ranchers, the Noble Research Institute launched a new online resource - www.noble.org/drought - to serve as a central repository for drought management information. Content for the site was developed by the Noble Research Institute's agricultural consultants, as well as accumulated from university researchers and agricultural experts from around the country.

The online resource discusses almost every aspect of drought management, from safeguarding pastures and destocking to tax implications and wildlife concerns. "This is a comprehensive resource that should answer many of the questions that come with working through this situation," Aljoe said. "This is sound information that will help farmers and ranchers meet their specific challenges."

Additionally, Noble's agricultural consultants developed a special double issue of Ag News and Views (also available by calling 580.224.6411) and a series of webinars - that discuss the most pressing drought issues.

Noble's agricultural consultants will continue to support struggling producers throughout the duration of the drought and beyond, while the organization's plant scientists and breeders are researching solutions to the next drought.

Unlocking drought tolerance
If humans and livestock are going to successfully navigate future droughts, they will need plants adapted to the harsher environment. Noble scientists have spent more than a decade developing new methods for identifying and breeding these drought-tolerant plants.

The complexity of the process is undeniable; plants do not respond to drought with a single mechanism like an on-off switch. Instead, they mitigate drought by employing multiple strategies like a pianist pressing various keys at different times to generate music.

Noble Research Institute researchers begin their search for these invaluable drought survival mechanisms by first examining plants that exhibit natural drought tolerance in the field or greenhouse. By looking at the physiological, biochemical and molecular traits of drought-tolerant plants, the researchers can begin to trace back to the genes that control these processes.

Noble Research Institute Professor Michael Udvardi, Ph.D., has discovered many of these telltale traits in alfalfa. Udvardi, along with Postdoctoral Fellow Yun Kang, Ph.D., believes stomata, which are pores within the leaves, play a role in drought tolerance. Stomata allow gasses - primarily carbon dioxide - to enter the plant, but they are also the main site of water loss. Udvardi and Kang's research indicates that drought-tolerant plants have a lower density of stomata than drought-sensitive plants, helping to retain water. Udvardi has also taken drought research to the biochemical level, measuring plant metabolism. Plants with better drought endurance produce more beneficial chemical compounds such as antioxidants and osmolytes, the latter of which help retain water in the cells.

"Plants cope with drought in many ways," Udvardi said. "The more of these mechanisms we can identify and understand, the better our ability to enhance drought tolerance in plants."

Using the physical attributes of a plant as the launching pad, Noble Research Institute researchers then search a plant's genes, attempting to link them to specific drought survival traits.

Assistant Professor Maria Monteros, Ph.D., uses molecular markers, which are like genetic mile markers on the chromosomal highway, to identify particular regions of a genome. If specific markers are consistently found in drought-tolerant plants, Monteros can be confident that genes conferring tolerance are nearby.

Recently, Monteros found a specific type of marker (single nucleotide polymorphism or SNP) that clearly highlighted a series of genes involved in drought tolerance. To confirm her findings, she subjected plants containing these genes to a series of progressive drought trials. During these experiments, the genes in question increased their activity, thus indicating their role in response to drought. "We can use this knowledge in our breeding program to quickly and efficiently identify plants with drought tolerance, increasing the efficiency of the breeding process," Monteros said. "We can also work to integrate these genes into plants that don't have them through molecular breeding approaches or genetic transformation."

Professor Zeng-Yu Wang, Ph.D., is renowned for his expertise in genetic transformation, wherein a specific gene is moved directly from one species into another. In the area of drought tolerance, Wang tested a series of genes that had been identified as key contributors to a plant's production of a protective waxy layer on its leaves.

Functionally similar to Udvardi's stomatal density discovery, this wax moderates evaporation to allow plants to preserve water and imparts greater drought tolerance during dry conditions.

Wang inserted one of the genes into alfalfa. The resulting transgenic plant's ability to endure drought was significant. When wild-type plants and transgenic plants grew under normal conditions, there was almost no difference. When water was removed, however, the transgenic plants far outlasted the normal plants and recovered better when re-watered. The transgenic plants have now been crossed into special lines of alfalfa used for agriculture, and field tests will begin this fall. "The goal is to produce plants with more consistent performance despite climate conditions," Wang said. "The potential impact is far reaching."

Fighting Back
While Noble Research Institute plant scientists continue to strive for new, hardier plants and agricultural consultants support producers in need, the only action that remains is to wait for the drought to break. The fall forecast, however, looks bleak - above average temperatures and dry. The financial forecast is equally unsettling. A recent New York Times article estimated that damages from the drought have already reached into the billions of dollars (more than $3 billion in Texas alone), while the full impact of crop and livestock losses to the agricultural industry will not be fully realized for many years to come.

"Agricultural producers face tremendous challenges every year, whether it's drought, pests, diseases or bad markets," Cook said. "Every time, our farmers and ranchers fight back through their determination and ingenuity, and the Noble Research Institute has been right there fighting beside them."

Fighting back sounds good to Creede Speake. He's been doing it longer than most. At the end of his ranch tour, the 87-year-old rancher crouched down and clutched a handful of dried dirt from a pond bottom, a patch of ground that had been 12 feet underwater less than a year ago.

"How do you survive drought?" he asked. "Be tough and outlast it. That's what we've always done."