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Fields of Green

Noble Research Institute researchers tackle the year-round grazing challenge, hoping to unlock its economic potential and improve sustainability

By Laura Beil, Writer

Posted Jan. 6, 2015

Cody Goodknight comes from four generations of Tillman County ranchers who have learned from decades of raising cattle how to keep hay costs under control. His herd grazes on native grasses that have adapted to the uncertain rainfall of the southwest Oklahoma plains. He moves his animals to a new pasture every few days or at most two weeks, allowing fields time to rest and revive. He puts up hay most summers and plants winter wheat to tide him through the winter months.

The system takes planning, water resources and miles of fencing, but it works. It is how Goodknight manages his 300-400 heifers. It is how most ranchers operate.

Forage 365 researchers with rancher Jackie Cunningham, Jr.From left Yuan Wang, Ph.D., Noble Research Institute molecular geneticist, Maria Monteros, Ph.D., Noble Research Institute plant breeder and geneticist, Malay Saha, Ph.D., Noble Research Institute molecular plant breeder, James Rogers, Ph.D., Noble Research Institute agronomist and Jackie Cunningham, Jr., Oklahoma rancher

A new initiative from Noble Research Institute hopes one day soon to take this idea further than most managers now can, enabling ranchers to raise their herds with little or no need even to cut hay, much less buy it. Called Forage 365, the initiative hopes to create ranches where the grass is always green (or at least greener), with cool-season crops that persist through winter and heat-resistant species able to withstand the scorching summer sun.

"Many producers can make hay. All producers can buy hay," said Billy Cook, director of the Agricultural Division at the Noble Research Institute. "In many situations, it's not the most cost-effective practice. We envision a forage system where cattle can graze year-round and the need for hay is reduced or even eliminated."

In some parts of the country, ranchers rely on hay for up to 150 days of the year, Cook explained. "We want to do a better job of managing existing species," he said. "We now have more technology for management than we've ever had."

Examining plant tissue samplesSenior Research Associate Myoung-Hwan Chi, Ph.D., examines plant tissue samples for the presence of a fungus that may benefit plant growth.

An Institute-wide Effort

The effort brings together different parts of the Noble Research Institute campus from those who investigate the secrets of particular genes, to experts on plant breeding and management, to researchers in applied agricultural practice.

Noble scientists and researchers will identify and work with external scientists and researchers around the region and nation to expedite the process.

"The Noble Research Institute has the combination of expertise and resources, along with the necessary relationships within the research community, to successfully develop and execute this program," said Michael Udvardi, Ph.D., director of the Plant Biology Division. "We needed to collaborate to tackle and solve bigger problems."

And feeding during lean times falls into the category of "big": the expense of hay is one of the major costs of raising livestock.

Noble isn't a newcomer to the idea of sustainable grazing. When Ann Wells, DVM, who operates Ozark Pasture Beef near Fayetteville, Arkansas, established her ranch in the late 1990s, she and her business partner were using information they obtained from Noble even then to reduce the need for outside hay. She has learned the value of letting fields rest and replenish themselves. Today, she rarely lets her cattle and sheep stay on any given pasture for more than a day or two.

"It requires planning and thinking," Wells said. "We start at least a season before, if not six months. We keep records, noticing how the pastures change and figuring out what we're going to need. What do these pastures look like now, and how can we get them to grow?"

Still, they don't grow year-round.

Sampling field-grown wheatPostdoctoral Fellow Ana Paez Garcia, Ph.D., samples field-grown wheat to study root architecture.

The Four Pillars

Given their expertise in the area, Noble scientists settled on a goal of endless forage for two main reasons: first, it stands to have a major impact on the production of beef cattle, the largest agricultural endeavor in the region and the country. (And a focus for Lloyd Noble himself in the 1940s.) Also, scientists are confident they have the scientific knowledge and resources to make a difference. Select outcomes will be available as early as 2018; however, several of the projects are intended to provide building blocks for scientists and breeders to provide improvements over the next decade.

Noble personnel, along with select collaborators, will be working on the four crops that make up the core of Forage 365 (see side bar).

"All of these species are available now to farmers and ranchers," Udvardi said, "but the reality is that even if you plant all of those crops, there are some periods of time when they are not growing."

One of the Noble scientists' first goals is to coax the plants into longer growing seasons, while making them tougher in the face of drought or cold. This won't just come from experimenting with different breeds. The Noble Research Institute's Forage Improvement Division, directed by Zengyu Wang, Ph.D., is examining the mechanisms for survival at a molecular level pinpointing genes that protect a plant from harsh conditions.

All told, Forage 365 includes a strategic set of nine interconnecting projects that will improve forage system productivity and the profitability of livestock production, examine management practices and economic systems, and demonstrate how the system can improve sustainability.

"As a whole, Forage 365 focuses on the improvement and management of the four pillar species in a unified system, as well as advances the use of cover crops," Wang said. "This whole-system approach enhances the sustainability of grazing lands, taking quality practices by agricultural producers to the next level."

Not only will the project benefit livestock management today, it stands to better prepare the next generation of ranchers. Even crops that grow well today will need to better withstand the ever-changing weather patterns. "It's predicted there will be a wider range of temperatures and rainfall," Udvardi says. "I think it's prudent that we prepare for more challenging conditions for plants in the future. This project assists us today, but it's also going to revolutionize the future of forages."

Beneficial fungus in an artificial growth mediumWheat plants are colonized with a beneficial fungus in an artificial growth medium.

Forage 365 will focus on four pillar species.

These are:

Bermudagrass

This forage is popular because it is fast growing and tough (it originates in Africa, not Bermuda), but it goes brown and dormant in the winter.

Tall fescue

This is a cool-season grass with the potential resilience to survive hot summers. That's one reason why it is popular in "transition zone" states, like Oklahoma. "There are not a lot of productive cool-season perennials in this part of the world," Cook said.

Alfalfa

Known as the "queen of forages" for its impressive nutritional value, alfalfa's use in livestock dates back to antiquity. A legume, not a grass, it is commonly cut for hay. Though a perennial, it falls dormant when the weather turns cold.

Winter wheat

Wheat pasture has been grown in Oklahoma and Texas for grazing or dual purpose. It's an annual, usually planted in the fall, which produces until the first big freeze, then comes back again in early spring. Winter wheat is also an important commercial crop in the United States, where it is made into flour.

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