Returning to a Noble Idea

Oklahoma Foundation Combines Producer Relations, Soil Health, High-Tech Science

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Jim Rogers, a pasture and range specialist at the Noble Foundation, talks about different cropping practices used for winter wheat in paddocks on one of Noble’s research farms. The farm has been studying tillage, no-till, cover crops and comparing yields from those various practices. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

ARDMORE, Okla. (DTN) -- When Oklahoma oilman Lloyd Noble started the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in 1945, his mission was to care for the soil.

"The land must continue to provide for our food, clothing and shelter long after the oil is gone," declared Noble, who named the foundation after his father.

Recently, current Noble Foundation leaders invited a group of journalists to tour its research and education campus 90 miles south of Oklahoma City. In September, the Noble Foundation recognized its 70th year helping farmers and livestock producers protect the soils in the Southern Plains. At the same time, Noble's leaders are recommitting the organization to working the land with a joint "soil renaissance project" and a potential soil-health institute that could be unveiled later this year.

"In the last two years, this organization has gone back to its roots," said Adam Calaway, Noble's director of communications.

Noble began as a group of agronomists and soil specialists who visited farms to test nutrient levels in the soil. Today Noble offers a pipeline of research, labs, greenhouses and 13,000 acres of research fields that cover a broad spectrum of agriculture in the Southern Plains.

"The research we do, if it fits this area, it fits everywhere in the world," said Bill Buckner, Noble's president and chief executive officer.

Noble has 340 employees from 27 countries, including more than 100 with doctoral degrees. The backbone of Noble's research is a cadre of postdoctoral fellows focused on plant breeding with an emphasis on forage grasses, grains and legumes.

Scientists are drawn to Noble for a variety of reasons, but facilities play a big part. Noble touts that at 50,000 square-feet, the foundation has the largest single greenhouse in the United States. It's also one of the most high tech with specialty growth lights, state-of-the-art air conditioning and special backup generators to protect research from power outages.

Thomas Coon, vice president for agricultural programs at Oklahoma State University, said Noble and OSU's Ag Extension work in a collaborative way with each having some different strengths.

"For me, the blessing is we have someone else who is as passionate about our mission as we here in the state and they bring a different set of resources to the table so I think that complements our work extremely well," Coon said.

Oklahoma State has seen its Extension funding cut about 15% during the past five years, Coon said. While looking for other funding sources, Coon said OSU is looking to better partner with foundations such as Noble.

OSU also has taken advantage of Noble's efforts to train post-doctoral scientists. One, now on the OSU faculty, is studying ways to enhance biofuel crops at a university research facility just down the road from Noble's campus. "So he still has a fair amount of collaboration with some colleagues there from Noble and they have some core facilities for processing samples that they make available to us," Coon said.

Recently, researchers at the Noble foundation and Michigan State University were awarded a $3 million grant to study genes in legumes such as alfalfa to better identify peptide molecules that regulate nitrogen fixation, root growth and nodule development. Other foundation researchers received a grant to discover synthetic chemicals that can improve the way roots grow in crops.

Noble's plant breeding program last year introduced four new small grain varieties, one each for wheat, rye, oat and triticale. The winter wheat was the first ever developed by Noble and was done to produce greater fall-winter forage compared to other varieties. The triticale was developed for marginal soils and can handle stress better than wheat varieties.

WORKING WITH COOPERATORS

Beyond the cadre of PhDs, Noble works with producers accounting for roughly 1.93 million acres, of which much of the acreage is rangeland. Thus, the foundation's primary focus is working on forage-based cattle production.

"We are unbiased. We don't sell anything. They trust us because we have no skin in the game. Our services are free of charge," said Hugh Aljoe, Noble producer relations manager.

Jimmy Kinder, a farmer from Walters, Okla., has worked with Noble for about 10 years as a "cooperator," the term the foundation calls its producer clients. Kinder has stocker cattle and small grains such as wheat, canola, milo and sesame. Kinder said Noble has a way of going beyond the ways a university extension agent might aid a farmer or livestock producer.

"One of the things that Noble does that we just don't really have in our wheelhouse with Extension is they really kind of take a systems approach," Kinder said in a phone interview. He added, "My farm is a diversified operation with stocker cattle and small grains. They can put together a system and demonstrate how one thing impacts another."

Kinder is working on soil-health strategies, including integrating cover crops into his system.

"For covers to work and be sustainable we are going to have to have livestock in that system," Kinder said. "(Noble Foundation researchers) are very comfortable in forages. Their efforts in soil health and expertise with cattle are going to help producers make it work sustainably economically as well as environmentally."

Another Noble project, called Forage 365, has as its central goal to create year-around grazing capacity in that semi-arid climate. That would reduce reliance on hay stocks, cutting the labor and expense need to bale and store hay, said Jim Rogers, one of Noble's forage experts. One system being tested is seeding a mix of warm-season cover crops after wheat grain harvest, followed by wheat interseeded in fall.

It's a sound theory, but as Rogers noted, "In practicality, nothing ever works like that because it's biology."

BACKYARD FARMING

Beyond the larger-scale farmer, Noble is making a foray to help smaller farms and backyard operations. The group's researchers told journalists that as more people move outside of cities such as Dallas and Oklahoma City the number of vineyards, orchards and small fruit and vegetable operations has grown. Noble is setting up 80 acres of demonstration plots of backyard agriculture ideas. A related project, The Center for Pecans and Specialty Ag, was developed at Noble this year with help from the Rodale Institute. That center will showcase projects such as raised beds, sheds, hoop houses and other garden containers, as well as orchards.

"We need to show people they can be profitable and sustainable with a small acreage," said Charles Rohli, who is leading the project. "There is no place we have found who is doing it all in one place."

Noble also is looking at ways to highlight multi-species grazing operations, in which producers might have cattle grazing with sheep, goals, hogs or chickens.

BUSINESS ACUMEN

Kinder credits Buckner for bringing commercial business ideas to the forefront at Noble. Buckner came to Noble in early 2012 after leaving as the president and CEO of Bayer CropScience and as chairman of the board of directors for CropLife America. Those business contacts are helping raise the profile of Noble, Kinder said.

"We've got a lot of balls in the air right now," Kinder said. "He has done quite a bit in a short amount of time."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(GH/CZ)

Chris Clayton