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The Next Chapter

Posted Sep. 21, 2012

Newest researcher takes over Noble's most historic program
Mark Newell
Mark Newell, Ph.D., examines wheat as part of his small grains breeding research. Newell joined the Noble Research Institute in spring 2012.
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Try feeding a global population of 7 billion without small grains. It's impossible.

Wheat represents one the cornerstones of the global food foundation, while barley, oats and rye are primary ingredients in everything from bread to beer.

What is often overlooked, however, is the role of small grains in livestock production. In the early 1950s, Noble Research Institute broke from traditional efforts of focusing on grain yield and instead pioneered the use of small grains as hardy winter pasture for cattle. The result transformed the Southern Great Plains into stocker cattle country, where - to this day - millions of livestock graze on small grains.

"Small grains are often overlooked," said Charlie Brummer, Ph.D., director of the Noble Research Institute's Forage Improvement Division. "But they have significant implications for this region and the world, not only as a food source but as an economic driver."

The next generation
Through six decades the Noble Research Institute's small grains program has passed from one famed plant breeder to the next. Roy Chessmore, Ph.D. initiated the program in the early 1950s. His landmark Elbon rye variety ("Noble" spelled backwards) was planted across the southern states as far as Florida. Elbon rye was so popular it became synonymous with rye much like "Coke" is often substituted for the phrase "soft drinks."

Richard Bates, Ph.D., assumed the leadership reins in the 1960s, offered improved varieties for three decades, greatly expanded the size of the testing plots and established the organization's famed small grain variety trials, which test commercially available type's side-by-side with Noble experimental lines. "These trials have provided production information for farmers continuously since 1966," Brummer said. "The longevity of these evaluations and the critical data they provide are unparalleled."

Bates was followed by Jerry Baker, Ph.D., who continued the production of new varieties through the 1990s until his retirement in 2004, who continued his contributions, while working in concert with Malay Saha, Ph.D., assistant professor.

This spring, Mark Newell, Ph.D., became the fifth generation to lead the small grains breeding program when he joined the Noble Research Institute as the newest principal investigator. "Not many organizations have such a rich legacy with small grains," Newell said. "This is a tremendous opportunity, and I'm anxious to become a part of this historical program."

A new direction
Newell's path to small grains began with a very different plant.

A native son of Colorado and avid backpacker, the 28-year-old was working toward a degree in forest biology at Colorado State University (CSU) when he crossed paths with Mark Brick, Ph.D., who introduced the young researcher to plant breeding with a project on dry beans (better known as, pinto beans).

Newell finalized his bachelor's degree in 2005 but the impact of the genetic breeding project redirected his focus. Now firmly ensconced, Newell remained at CSU to work with Mark Brick on a master's degree on dry beans breeding.

He delved into small grains - specifically oat - during his doctorial research at Iowa State University. The research used molecular data in concert with traditional plant breeding, where researchers select superior plants based on physical characteristics (phenotype) and molecular information (genotype). "This was more of the type of research I wanted to do," Newell said. "Combining modern and traditional techniques gives a researcher the fastest and most efficient methods for producing an improved variety."

Upon graduation in 2011, Newell began job hunting while working on a postdoctoral fellowship. He soon found the Noble Research Institute. "I've known about the Noble Research Institute since I was an undergraduate," Newell said.

"I was fortunate because my background and research was a nice fit, especially when you look at how we use both genetic and traditional breeding methods. It was just a very natural progression for me coming here."

In the spring of 2012, the Noble Research Institute's small grains program officially became Newell's. He has spent considerable time reviewing the historical data and decades of projects as he outlined the next chapter of small grains at Noble.

Anytime Newell had a question he has two living advantages sitting right outside his door is Jerry Baker, who continues to consult since his retirement, and down the hall is Malay Saha. "Having both my predecessors handy to ask questions has been an unbelievable benefit," Newell said. "Their assistance has made this such a smooth transition and provided much-needed insights as I look at the future of our small grains program."

The next chapter
For Newell's research, that future will focus specifically on two species - rye and oats.

While regional producers use wheat for both grain and livestock grazing, rye and oat are strictly grazed. "Ranchers depend on small grains for cattle production from September through May," Newell said. "So providing them varieties with improved performance can have a significant impact."

Breeding improved traits into rye is a bit trickier than other small grains. Rye is an "out crosser" which means it must cross with another plant, which differs from a "self-pollinator," like wheat, which can inbreed.

Additionally, Newell has decided to implement breeding processes largely different than past practices. Traditional plant breeders usually take several unique lines, intermingles them, and plants the offspring in a field where the individual plants can be observed, allowing the breeder to examine the various physical characteristics. The breeder then keeps the best plants based on visual performance, such as the amount of forage, discards the rest and begins the process again.

Newell will increase the efficiency by selecting the best plants based on performance of half-siblings (multiple members of a family) rather than an individual plant.

He will also make selections at "producer density." The performance of lines, especially for rye, is usually evaluated as a single plant or by low density plots unlike on-farm production. Instead, Newell plans on making selections in higher density trials, mirroring how corn is evaluated and selected.

"There are very few breeders looking at rye as forage, maybe one other breeder in the United States. And we are certainly the first to use these breeding techniques in the small grains," Newell said. "I believe this gives us an advantage for producing the best possible outcomes for regional agricultural producers."

Newell will also approach breeding oats in a similar manner. "There is a pretty clean slate concerning oats," he said. "There is not a lot of work done on oat for forage, so there is tremendous room for improvement." Newell will be evaluating lines and germplasm to identify sources of good winter hardiness since a major challenge for oats in Oklahoma and North Texas is winterkill.

Soon, Noble's newest researcher will use molecular markers to help identify genes that play roles in target traits in both rye and oat. It is the same technology the organization has promoted in breeding improved alfalfa lines.

"Currently we select new varieties based on the phenotype," Newell said. By looking at the genetics, we can more accurately evaluate and select plants with superior performance. Unfortunately, plant scientists have not historically devoted time to discovering and identifying molecular markers for rye and oats compared to other crops, but we'll get there. That's the next chapter of the story."