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A Shared Cause

Oklahoma State University and the Noble Research Institute build on a 70-year legacy of collaboration as they serve their home state and beyond.

By Courtney Leeper, Writer

Posted Sep. 29, 2016

Sarah Oliver's favorite part of science is seeing how it helps people.

That's part of why she chose Oklahoma State University (OSU) over the Ivy League schools that originally drew her interest. OSU offered her the opportunity to jump right into research as a freshman, and Stillwater's small-town atmosphere reminded her of home: Ardmore, Oklahoma, the place her interest in science was first sparked during school field trips to the Noble Research Institute.

As a third-grader, Oliver's mind was captivated by the rows and rows of grasses growing in the greenhouse. Three years later, she pulled on a latex glove to touch warm, half-digested grasses pulled from a cow's rumen, the first of its four-chambered stomach. Today, Oliver still remembers her thought while the cow stood there obliviously chewing its cud: "Science is really cool."

Oliver's desire to explore the world through science and to be part of a career field that uses science to find solutions to some of life's most complicated problems, led her from Ardmore to OSU. There she studies biochemistry and works in a laboratory focused on human health. This summer, she found her way back to the Noble Research Institute as one of five Summer Research Scholars in Plant Science.

"I'm not just sitting here pipetting things," Oliver said. "I am sitting here pipetting things knowing that if I discover something interesting, it might help people."

This desire is a common thread shared among people at both OSU and the Noble Research Institute. Throughout the last 70 years, they have collaborated many times to fulfill their shared objective of serving Oklahoma and advancing agriculture through research and education.

In the Beginning

OSU (originally named Oklahoma A&M University) was a healthy 55 years old when the Noble Research Institute came into existence in 1945 with the main purpose of promoting soil conservation and land stewardship in the post-Dust Bowl era.

Horace Harper, Ph.D.Horace Harper, Ph.D., an OSU soils professor and the first Noble Research Institute Agricultural Division director, in 1952.

1954 Field DayHorace Harper, Ph.D., (second from left) at a field day, May 20, 1954.

After founder Lloyd Noble, an oilman and philanthropist, died in 1950 and left much of his estate to the Noble Research Institute, the trustees purchased a 198-acre farm 2 miles east of Ardmore. This tract of land became headquarters for a joint research program developed by the Noble Research Institute and OSU in May 1951. Led by Horace Harper, Ph.D., an OSU professor of soils, the program called for the establishment of three research and demonstration farms on soils typical of south-central Oklahoma. The idea was simple: conduct research and demonstrate best practices so area farmers and ranchers could apply this knowledge to their land and operations. In essence, Harper became the Noble Research Institute's first Agricultural Division director while maintaining his OSU position.

For the next seven years, OSU and the Noble Research Institute expanded agricultural research in the region beyond soil to include beef and dairy cattle production; field and horticulture crops, including pecans; cropping systems; irrigation; and marketing. Each year, more than 2,000 people attended field days at the farms to see the results of new technologies and practices.

In 1958, the Agricultural Division's focus shifted to directly funneling information to area agricultural producers through consultation. While the initial collaboration ended, the relationship with OSU did not.

Pistol Pete and the Blue CowPistol Pete, the Oklahoma State University mascot, and the Noble Research Institute blue cow represent a 70-year-old relationship.

Better Together

Wadell Altom joined the Noble Research Institute as a soil fertility specialist for the consultation program in 1966. As an OSU graduate, he credits his time working in OSU's soil and water testing laboratory as an agronomy student with preparing him for his first job, which launched his career at the Noble Research Institute that would span more than four decades.

While the consultation program sent out teams of specialists to work with producers and help them adopt new practices, research continued. "Only we didn't have research technicians to carry out the day-to-day work back then," said Altom, who retired as Agricultural Division director in 2009. The consultants were responsible for all aspects of a research project, from the initial idea to carrying it out. "If you believed in a project, you were going to do it," he continued.

This led to collaboration among specialists, including the team of Altom and Jerry Rogers on soil fertility projects from the 1970s to the 1990s. The team also pulled in Robert Morrison, an OSU statistician, to design the project and analyze the data so they could focus on communicating the results to farmers.

Altom also remembers working with William "Bill" Raun, Ph.D., an OSU agronomist. Raun's project led to the development of GreenSeeker technology, which detects nutrient needs in pasture and crop fields. The Noble Research Institute provided a portion of the funding and testing for this technology, including supporting a postdoctoral fellow, Jagadeesh Mosali, Ph.D., who collaborated with OSU on using GreenSeeker in bermudagrass fertility projects.

"It was nice to know that if you had a question, you could ask someone somewhere else," Altom said. Through the years, Altom served on various committees at OSU, from research review to agricultural leadership. "Ultimately it benefits producers if all organizations work together."

Many interactions among pecan specialists at OSU and the Noble Research Institute have led to standard practices used by pecan growers in the state, which is ranked third in the nation for number of pecan acres, and country.

Through the 1970s, OSU's R.D. Eikenbary, Ph.D., used data from the Noble Research Institute's Red River Farm to learn more about the pecan weevil, which causes immature pecans to fall from trees early and destroys quality when their eggs hatch inside the nut. In the 1980s and 1990s, Phil Mulder, Ph.D., current department head of the OSU Entomology and Plant Pathology Department, built on Eikenbary's research and developed the circle trap, the use of which is now a standard practice in the pecan industry to control weevils.

In the late 1990s, Cecil Crabtree, a producer who grows pecans along the Red River and works with Noble Research Institute consultants, noticed his pecan trees looked unhealthy.

The leaves were pale, and they weren't producing as many pecans as other orchards in the area. Crabtree mentioned the problem to Scott Landgraf, a Noble Research Institute horticulturist and pecan specialist at the time, who pulled in Mike Smith, Ph.D., from OSU. Together, Landgraf and Smith determined Crabtree's orchard lacked manganese, a nutrient deficiency never before recorded, and found a treatment still used today.

Researchers also have worked together to determine why pecans seem to have a productive crop every other year and on best practices for watering and fertilizing orchards.

Now, the Noble Research Institute's pecans are also being used in OSU research on pecan health benefits and food safety.

Charles Rohla, Ph.D.Charles Rohla, Ph.D., continues working with OSU researchers to benefit the pecan industry through the Noble Research Institute Center for Pecan and Specialty Agriculture.

"While we are doing our own pecan research, we are also growing pecans like a producer might," said Charles Rohla, Ph.D., manager of the Noble Research Institute's Center for Pecan and Specialty Agriculture. "We often become a laboratory for other researchers, including those at OSU, who have their own interests in different aspects of pecan growth, care and marketing. There is strength in numbers, and together we make a better program for the state of Oklahoma."

Combined Expertise

Working together on research has become progressively more important in recent decades, according to Keith Owens, OSU Division of Agricultural Science and Natural Resources associate vice president who oversees OSU's statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system.

"Collaborative research enhances the credibility and viability of a project by including a wider array of expertise," Owens said. "A research project often covers a wide range of methodology, technology and theory across a number of career disciplines and programs. The complexity of these projects is likely to be far beyond the research capabilities of a single individual, demanding multiple experts working as a team to accomplish a common goal."

One common goal in Oklahoma has been helping farmers and ranchers deal with cotton root rot, a debilitating fungal disease that can wipe out alfalfa and other crops like cotton, peanuts and pecans. Todd Baughman, Ph.D., a researcher at OSU's Institute for Agricultural Biosciences, has been studying different ways to control the disease with fungicides on trial plots at the Noble Research Institute's Red River Farm since fall 2013. With the Noble Research Institute just five minutes away, he works closely with Noble Research Institute researchers James Rogers, Ph.D., a forage systems specialist, and more recently Carolyn Young, Ph.D., a mycologist.

Young remembers meeting Stephen Marek, Ph.D., another OSU researcher, in 2006. Young describes Marek as the "brilliant plant pathologist" who taught her about the fungus that causes cotton root rot, Phymatotrichopsis omnivora. When the two went out to alfalfa fields to observe the disease-ridden land and collect samples to study back in the laboratory, Marek climbed to the top of a grain bin to get a better view of the damaged field.

Now the team flies unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, to capture aerial images that help them track the disease progression. This helps Baughman better see the results of his trials and gives him more information upon which to base the next round. It also helps Young as she tackles the problem in the laboratory, where she and her team study how the fungus reproduces and what makes it attack.

"Bringing in different areas of expertise helps us see things in a new light," Young said. "You bring in partners who together make the best team possible because, really, it's about working together to help farmers."

Beyond Research

John Weir, a research associate in the OSU Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, first met Russell Stevens, a wildlife and range consultant at the Noble Research Institute, when they did research together on the Noble Research Institute's Coffey Ranch in the late 1990s. They were studying the effects of fire, used strategically, on the health of open pastureland.

Fire is a natural part of the Great Plains ecosystem, but fear of fire has led to its suppression as more and more people have come to live closer and closer together. As a result, eastern red-cedar trees have spread; birds and other wildlife have lost their habitat; and when fire does occur naturally or by accident, the flames can blaze uncontrollably because of red-cedar's high flammability.

John WeirJohn Weir, OSU research associate (front), works with Noble Research Institute consultants and researchers to promote prescribed burns.

Research points toward the need for fire on the landscape, but fires must be carefully planned and conducted by people with experience. More than 90 percent of Oklahoma's 12 million acres of forestland is privately owned. The Noble Research Institute began organizing workshops to help these land managers in the 1990s, and Weir began organizing groups of interested landowners into local associations that could work together to share equipment and knowledge while bringing fire back as a land management tool.

In 2010, as the various prescribed fire associations emerged, Weir and fellow wildlife conservation experts realized landowners needed more support to make controlled burns commonplace.

Ron Voth of the Oklahoma Wildlife and Prairie Heritage Alliance and Darrel Dominick of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission received a grant to meet with landowners and the various associations, conduct trainings, and administer a survey to find out why people weren't burning. Two years and 500 responses later, they found that liability and the lack of insurance to cover any potential damages was a major reason limiting landowners' use of prescribed burns. In 2010, the group started working toward making prescribed burn insurance a reality but soon realized the need was greater than just insurance.

"What we needed was a group that could support them," Weir said. "We needed a network of people that would connect all these groups. That's where the idea for the Oklahoma Prescribed Burn Association came in."

In November 2012, OPBA was in its infancy when Weir contacted Russell Stevens at the Noble Research Institute. "Russell and I had a good working relationship, and I knew the Noble Research Institute had a strong history with prescribed burning," Weir said. "They know how to work with landowners and groups. They know how to train. And they're just good people to work with. I thought it would be right up their alley."

By April of the next year, the Noble Research Institute and OPBA signed a two-year agreement that allocated 90 percent of Stevens' time to serve as the first OPBA executive director.

Soon after, OPBA was able to set up the organizational bylaws and legal documents to ensure the association could revitalize the local associations by providing them with equipment, training and more support. Stevens played a large role in conducting a study on the effectiveness of prescribed burn plans that was presented to the Oklahoma Senate.

"The Noble Research Institute helped us get over a lot of the hurdles of forming an organization," Weir said. "Having Russell pretty much full time was a huge, huge help. OSU, the Noble Research Institute, OPBA, it's all a great fit because we're all working for the same cause, the same reason. Together we can get a lot of good stuff done."

Including making prescribed burn insurance a reality for landowners in 2015.

"OPBA is a good demonstration of what can actually be done when you work together," Stevens said. "We don't care about whether it's from the Noble Research Institute or OSU. If we see a problem that we can tackle together, we do. We roll up our sleeves and go to work side-by-side."

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