Like solving a Rubik's cube click by click, Twain Butler works relentlessly to solve the most frustrating problems in agriculture. Butler, 39, grew up on a diverse farming operation that included beef and dairy cattle.
Butler could have returned to the family business after receiving his bachelor of science at Texas Tech University, but instead he chose to pursue research in a master's program at Oklahoma State University and, later, his doctorate at Texas A&M University.
In 2004, Butler joined the Noble Research Institute as a research agronomist. He spends his days in his laboratory - a series of test plots and fields - where he works on solving the many agronomic problems facing producers. There is just one thing he enjoys more than the challenge of his Rubik's cube job - finding the ultimate solution. And sometimes a home-brewed beer is nice.
If you had to explain your work to a stranger, what would you say?
As a research agronomist, I'm working to find new ways to do things better, or not, in agriculture. I'm always trying new things and trying to discover better management practices for forage crops. I'm like a small plot farmer. I get to take risks other farmers can't afford. I also take the improved forage varieties bred by the Noble Research Institute and develop best management practices for them.
What part of Lloyd Noble's mission do you most identify with?
Mr. Noble wanted us to positively affect the lives of farmers and ranchers. This fundamental belief is my litmus test when I am setting up my experiments. Everything I do is focused on finding solutions to the problems agricultural producers need to solve. That's the most important thing.
What's the most frustrating part of your job?
Weed control is both my specialty and my frustration. I've screened hundreds of different herbicides for cool-season perennial grasses, and nothing was able to remove the annual ryegrass without hurting the tall fescue. The same goes for switchgrass; I can't selectively control crabgrass in switchgrass seedlings. It is so much easier in my yard than in my test plots.
How do you manage to stay focused?
I have to step back, use a common sense approach and go back to basic agronomics to see what else we can do. You can't guarantee anything in agriculture. It's risky because there are so many variables like Mother Nature.
So how does weather impact field research?
My research is trumped by weather all the time (he laughs). I had two years of research in the field in 2011, then we had the drought. I lost everything and had to start over. Our team has to plan ahead and be patient like real producers. There's no silver bullet. You just keep going. But when a farmer like my dad gets to use what I've discovered to better his operation, it's a true victory.
If you weren't doing research, what would you do?
If I wasn't a research agronomist, I'd be a farmer running a forage-based livestock operation. It's what I grew up doing. It's what I enjoy. It's basically what I do now. Instead of being a farmer, I get to help them. I really do have a dream job.
What experiences have influenced your work?
The opportunity to travel the world has truly impacted my work. I've seen so many different types of research, crops and environments. When you see what they're doing abroad, you learn how to modify that to fit your environment.
What countries have you visited?
I've been to Argentina, Ireland, Scotland, England, Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay and Wales.
Tell me about your traveling tradition?
Every country I go to, I always sample a local brew. Brewing used to be a real hobby of mine.
How did you become interested in brewing?
While working for Texas A&M, a group of faculty had brewing competitions. I started teaching myself to brew. I did my own little research project using different yeast strains in the brew and eventually identified the best. Then I did the same procedure with hops and determined which set of hops I liked the most. I varied the ingredients until I eventually got a combination that was my favorite.
That seems like a fitting hobby for an agronomist.
It was a good hobby for me. It appealed to my sense of solving problems with a particularly enjoyable outcome. Now my hobby involves helping solve the many logistical needs of raising twin daughters. I have to tell you, that's harder to solve than my weed problem, but more rewarding than anything I've done in my life.