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  5. Summer 2011

New Opportunities

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Advanced breeding methods and a novel endophyte combine to offer agricultural producers a new alternative for winter grazing
Twain Butler

"We're always looking to provide new tools for our ranchers and farmers."

Joe Bouton, Ph.D.,
Senior Professor in the Noble Research Institute Forage Improvement Division

grazing cows
Cattle graze on Texoma MaxQ II in test plots on the Noble Research Institute's campus in Ardmore, Okla.

Research at the Noble Research Institute often capitalizes on technology and advanced breeding techniques to improve traditional agricultural practices. The results can provide lasting positive alternatives for agricultural producers.

For decades, farmers and ranchers in the Southern Great Plains have annually planted ryegrass as potential forage during fall through early spring. Perennial options have been unavailable because they can rarely survive the region's blazing summer heat. Certain varieties of tall fescue held the potential to last through the summer months and return each year, but they carried the potential for fescue toxicosis, an illness caused by a small fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with the plant.

The Noble Research Institute and a collaborator, AgResearch of New Zealand, spent more than a decade developing a new variety of fescue that combines the advantages of a perennial reduced time and expense of replanting annual crops while removing the elements that cause toxicity.

Called Texoma MaxQ II, the new tall fescue variety is the first commercial forage designed specifically as a cool-season perennial grass for the Southern Great Plains. Licensed to Pennington Seed Co., Texoma MaxQ II will be commercially available this summer and will begin to reduce the need for costly hay.

"When Noble Research Institute's Forage Improvement Division began its breeding program for this perennial forage in the late 1990s, a cool-season tall fescue was already commercially available," said Senior Professor Joe Bouton, Ph.D., founding director of the Forage Improvement Division, who currently leads its commercialization efforts and oversees one of the organization's forage breeding laboratories. "But it couldn't withstand the sweltering summers of Oklahoma and Texas. The strategy behind Texoma MaxQ II was to find a better combination for this geographic region."

Through a straightforward breeding process, Noble researchers developed a tall fescue variety containing a fungal endophyte which conveyed remarkable drought tolerance and persistence to its host plant through a symbiotic relationship. The initial endophyte, however, also caused fescue toxicosis, a condition that impedes a cattle's desire to graze and results in production loss. Unfortunately, removing the fungus from the plant reduced its persistence and ability to withstand drought.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, AgResearch discovered a naturally occurring endophyte that provides plants insect tolerance and is not toxic to consuming animals. AgResearch inoculated Noble Research Institute's tall fescue with the new endophyte for further study at Noble's Ardmore, Okla., campus.

"Using this more appropriate endophyte, we were able to generate seed to begin testing the new variety," explained Carolyn Young, Ph.D., an assistant professor who leads one of Noble's mycology laboratories. "Luckily, we can tell the two endophytes apart quite easily, which allowed us to track the new cultivar via a quality assurance pipeline."

Initial trials of Texoma MaxQ II began in small, controlled plots before expanding to larger field trials established by local farmers and ranchers who have been interested in testing the new fescue.

As the plant continued to show tremendous promise, Twain Butler, Ph.D., agronomist and associate professor, stepped in. Butler basically writes the "how-to" book on all new forage varieties, developing best management methods that address such factors as optimal planting dates, seeding rates, fertilizer requirements and how to best control weeds. Once a protocol for successful management has been developed, he and agricultural economists at the Noble Research Institute compare the production and economics of the new system versus the old system in this case, perennial fescue versus annual rye-ryegrass.

Butler's research compared the two systems over a six-year period, looking at such measurements as annual performance, grazing days and average daily livestock gains, and the costs of production for each. Jon Biermacher, Ph.D., agricultural economist and associate professor, ran the economic analysis, which showed that the new variety out-performs the old annual system, but needed a rainy year to do so.

"We had a very hot, dry summer the year after establishment; it really set the tall fescue back, while the annuals did very well," Butler said. "Throughout those six years, we separated the data by how much rainfall we received. We found a high correlation. In very wet years, the tall fescue performed as well as the annual system, but most of the years in the trial were extremely dry. During those years, the annual system out-performed the new perennial system. We concluded that in higher rainfall regions, fescue will be more economically competitive; in drier regions farther west, the annual system still is going to be more economical."

Noble Research Institute researchers continue to evaluate the new fescue with different planting methods to further refine management strategies and better utilize its new traits.

Assistant Professor James Rogers, Ph.D., who specializes in pasture and range management, said the variety performs very well in regions where tall fescues grow. "There are 35 million acres of tall fescue nationwide. In several variety tests from here to the East Coast, Texoma MaxQ II performed very well in those more adaptive regions," Rogers said. "We have found that it out-produces the standard fescue variety Kentucky 31 across a variety of nitrogen levels, even at the zero end level. It also has out-performed other varieties that we have tested."

The variety also matures earlier in the spring, which could provide grazing ahead of other perennial grasses, and then fades back as warm-season grass varieties begin producing. "Texoma MaxQ II complements the region's use of warm-season forages," Bouton said. "This grass was designed to assist from fall through the spring period so it will not be productive in the summer months. Producers will continue to use traditional warm-season grasses during this time, but then can look forward to Texoma MaxQ II returning in the fall, helping to provide a year-round grazing option."

Bouton calls Texoma MaxQ II a significant accomplishment for the organization's breeding process and another advantage for producers. "We're always looking to provide new tools for our ranchers and farmers," he said. "We're supporting them so they can sustainably meet the growing demands on agricultural production and the expanded needs of consumers."