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Put to the Test

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Noble Research Institute small grains variety trials have provided invaluable agricultural information for almost five decades
variety trial
Staff Scientist Jagadeesh Mosali, Ph.D., examines the progress of wheat in a variety trial at the Noble Research Institute's Dupy Farm north of Ardmore, Okla. In the background, Agricultural Research Assistant Kevin Lynch takes growth measurements of the small grain.

"To know if what you are breeding is better than what is already out there, you have to compare it."

Wadell Altom
former director, agricultural division

  • Photos

For nearly 50 years, farmers in the Southern Great Plains have had access to a tool that helps take the guesswork out of small grains production.

The Noble Research Institute's annual Report of Forage Yields from Small Grains Variety Trials is a Consumer Reports of sorts for agricultural producers. The report, produced by the organization's Agricultural Division, evaluates and compares commercially available and emerging experimental varieties of oats, rye, wheat and triticale, a rye/wheat hybrid. More than a dozen public and private breeding programs submit the new varieties for inclusion in the annual testing, including the Noble Research Institute's own Forage Improvement Division, where basic plant science research is translated into tangible plant varieties.

Through the past decades, the Noble Research Institute has become the primary location in the Southern Great Plains for both small grains testing and breeding. While numerous universities and companies work in small grains, most do not have the resources to fully conduct the research or the testing. The Noble Research Institute's historical relevance plus its resources, including 12,000 acres of farmland across southern Oklahoma, allow the organization to have a continued impact on the discipline.

"Small grains have numerous economic endpoints for the region," said John Blanton, Ph.D., agricultural research programs manager. "Not only do the breeding and testing programs impact the grain-based production, but there is a dual-use endpoint with the stocker cattle industry. Producers in this area depend on small grains for grazing, making the outcomes of this even more important."

Small Grains. Big Potential.
Established in the early 1950s, the Noble Research Institute's small grains breeding program focuses on rye, wheat, oats and triticale, which are typically planted in mid-September and, depending on the species, complete their life cycle between the following April and June.

"Early in our history, we recognized a need to have a small grain for fall and winter forage production," explained Wadell Altom, former director of the Agricultural Division and 43-year employee of the Noble Research Institute. "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."

As new small grains were developed, Noble Research Institute scientists also recognized the need to test them against what could be obtained in the marketplace. So the small grains variety trial program was initiated in 1966.

"To know if what you are breeding is better than what is already out there, you have to compare it," Altom said. "Our trials started small, comparing Noble Research Institute varieties to those available commercially, and grew to include potential varieties being developed by universities and other research institutions. There was a good collaborative exchange of new materials among all kinds of entities in the small grains breeding business."

While those entities had materials to be tested, they lacked the land and other resources required to conduct the trials. The Noble Research Institute had all of those resources, plus the organization had earned a reputation as a leader in improved grains after the enormously successful release of Elbon rye in 1956, which is still commercially available.

With the release of Elbon rye, researchers began comparing both grain yield and forage yield. "Before we began our work in the 1950s, farmers focused only on grain yields," Altom said. "Our research shifted the emphasis to small grains grown primarily for forage, changing the way farmers looked at grain production."

Today, Agricultural Division Staff Scientist Jagadeesh Mosali, Ph.D., coordinates the small grains trials. "Each year, we evaluate new small grains crops for feasibility and performance," Mosali said. "The data generated from these evaluations provides farmers with extra information to aid in their annual crop decision making process."

His predecessor, Jerry Baker, Ph.D., agrees. "What's great about the Noble Research Institute is that it has a practical connection with farmers that allows the researchers to get feedback about what the farmers need," said Baker, who ran the variety trials from 1993 until his retirement in 2004.

Rigorous Trials
Offered at no cost to participants, the trials are conducted at two Noble Research Institute research farms that represent common soil types in the Southern Great Plains. This ongoing evaluation process is designed to rigorously evaluate entrants to ensure accurate and useable information is relayed to both the farmers and seed producers.

At the end of June, germplasm entrants are recruited from commercial producers, universities and research organizations in the United States and Canada that have established small grains breeding programs.

Typically, Mosali receives samples from at least 15 organizations, and each brings a different mix of entries that may have value to small grains producers.

"As established lines evolve and new lines get closer to commercialization, we compare what each line is capable of producing," Mosali said. "While the bottom line is critical to our commercial partners, they want to produce product that has value for the farmer."

When the seed samples arrive (no later than Sept. 1), Mosali documents the source, divides them by crop and germinates them in an incubator. By mid-September, depending on weather, seeds are planted in 5-foot by 10-foot plots of each variety, with three replications for each plot. For example, the 2010-2011 trials included 22 entries of wheat, four of oats, 10 of rye and seven of triticale.

Each variety is planted according to normal producer practices; during the growing season, soils are tested, plots are fertilized and plants are treated for pests according to best management practices. "We replicate what farmers would do to their crops," Mosali said. "Our goal is to keep each plant on an equal footing to make sure the outcomes are unbiased."

Harvest times for the trials vary according to crop and purpose. In 2010-2011, small grains varieties designed for forage-only production systems were harvested in December, February, March and April. Dual-purpose varieties (those used for both grazing and grain) were harvested for forage in December and February, and for grain in June.

At the completion of the annual variety trial, Mosali and his colleagues analyze the production outcomes for all varieties and publish a fact sheet which details data on forage and grain yields by crop and variety. These fact sheets are available to farmers, seed producers and researchers, and can be obtained from the Agricultural Division in both paper and electronic formats.

"When studying the fact sheet, farmers should look for consistency and dependability of performance for a variety across multiple years and environments rather than within a single year," Mosali said. "They also should take into account the location that best matches their production situation - soil type, location proximity, yield goals and fertility levels - when using this information in their decision making process."

Come late summer, when the trials have been completed and the fact sheet has been published, the time will come for Mosali to start the process anew. Like farming, the Noble Research Institute's small grains trials are a year-round endeavor.

Next year's small grains variety trial reports will contain a new piece of information not previously included - the identity of the sources of the seeds being tested. Anyone reading the report, whether expert or novice, will know, for example, how a commercial variety produced by a seed company compares with an experimental variety developed by the Noble Research Institute.

"The beauty of the trials is that they are completely unbiased," Mosali said. "It doesn't matter whether the performance data is good or bad, whether it comes from our organization or an outside entity. It all goes into the report."

For the Forage Improvement Division, the independence of the trial is crucial.

"When breeders run trials on their own varieties and the results are good, nobody believes it," said Professor Joe Bouton, Ph.D., who currently leads Noble Research Institute commercialization efforts. "By participating in the Noble Research Institute trials, we are treated like everybody else and get an independent third-party analysis. When one of our varieties looks promising, it goes head-to-head against what is already commercially available. If it is going to stand up, it has to perform. Potential is nothing. Performance is everything."