Growing up on a 60-acre farm in Oklahoma, Mike Trammell had agriculture in his DNA. If you'd asked Trammell in high school about his future, though, he would have confessed that science piqued his curiosity more than agriculture. But it took a favorite college professor and a few semester-long outings into the wilderness to cement his path as a plant breeder.
For the past 12 years, Trammell has served as a plant breeder for the Noble Research Institute, learning from some of the industry's most renowned breeders and continuing a tradition that stretches back to the earliest years of the organization. On a typical Monday afternoon, he discussed the moments that shaped his life and career, and the job that still inspires him.
What inspired you to pursue a career in agriculture?
In high school, I had an interest in science and always did well in the classes, but I owe my career path in the plant sciences to one of my college professors at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. He convinced me to go to graduate school at the University of South Dakota, where everything changed for me.
I lived in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota badlands during the summer from 1991 to 1993, studying the physiology of invasive plants. It was one of the scariest moments in my life because the only technology connection was a single radio station out of Canada. I had never been that far from home before. However, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that shaped my future because it propelled me into plant breeding.
Where did you go after college?
I worked as an associate forage specialist for the University of Nebraska. The job entailed both extension and field-based forage research. It connected me to agriculture, then served as the stepping stone to my current position.
How did you get to the Noble Research Institute?
I came to the Noble Research Institute in 2003. I saw an opening, and it was a chance for me to get back close to home. My position as a plant breeder at the Noble Research Institute allows me to continue working with forages and with agricultural producers. From my point of view, it's the perfect job description. I'm appreciative of having the opportunity to benefit agriculture while living in my home state of Oklahoma.
What do you do as a plant breeder?
I breed perennial forage crops, such as tall fescue and alfalfa. The new varieties we develop are targeted to improve forage-based livestock operations for agricultural producers in the Southern Great Plains and the southeastern United States.
What are some challenges of your job?
Working with field-based plant breeding trials is a long, continuous process. We are constantly working to narrow down broad populations of plants to the specific ones that have all the main traits our producers want and need. It can take anywhere from 10 to 15 years to develop a perennial forage variety. It takes time to evaluate the selection of superior plant material, the hybridization of the selected material and the recombination to produce new generations for traits such as grazing persistence or yield.
How do you feel about continuing Noble's tradition of plant breeding?
I have had the opportunity to work with some of the best forage breeders in the world, starting with Andy Hopkins, Ph.D., to Joe Bouton, Ph.D., and Charlie Brummer, Ph.D. The privilege of carrying forward their work of developing tangible forage varieties for use by farmers and ranchers is exciting and rewarding.
What advice did they give you?
I will always remember one piece of advice Dr. Bouton gave me. "Running a breeding program is similar to managing a major league baseball team only the best can play. Narrow down your breeding material to the best and improve them; that's your team. Not everyone in the program can play for the team so you have to know who to cut."