COLLEGE STATION – Everything from emerging research into grass-fed cattle and forages, to soil fertility work attracted Gareth Davies, a Nuffield Farming Scholar from South Wales, U.K., to visit Texas A&M University’s soil and crop sciences department.
“I’m impressed with the range of relevant research projects and the open-mindedness and knowledge of the people I am visiting,” Davies said. “They are not trying to make research fit preconceived ideas. And their willingness to share the knowledge and be free with information transfer is great.”
“The Current and Future Role of Quality Grazed Grass in Lowering the Cost of Production on U.K. Farms Regardless of Systems” is the topic of Davies abroad studies.
His topics of interest include grass-finished beef, grazing strategies for beef production, forages for grazing animal health, sustainability of forage-based systems, study of potential health benefits of pasture-fed over grain-fed cattle, drought-resistant grasses and soil nutrient retention/leaching.
The Nuffield award, presented to around 20 individuals each year, provides the opportunity to research topics of interest in farming, food, horticulture or rural sectors. Scholars are able to travel anywhere in the world, visiting one or more countries in order to further knowledge and understanding, with a view to advancing their respective industries, according to the organization.
Davies, the grassland manager for Genus ABS in the U.K., said each scholar travels for eight weeks and then writes a paper and attends conferences to share the knowledge they learned.
Guiding Davies on his Texas A&M experience is Dr. Russ Jessup, an assistant professor of perennial grass breeding. He said the largest resources Texas A&M has to offer Davies include soil nutrient research, stress-tolerant grass cultivar development and accessibility to an abundance of producers and farmers utilizing a diverse array of operations.
“Gareth’s visit is a unique opportunity to exchange ideas towards improving grassland productivity,” Jessup said. “There are more than 12 million acres of grassland in Texas that are abandoned or under-utilized. Europe is arguable ahead of us in thinking about advanced strategies to improve production on these lands.”
The visit by Davies is a two-way learning experience, Jessup said. “Our program will be able to research and integrate some of the European strategies into the Texas grass-fed beef industry, and Davies will be exposed to the entire breadth of the soil and crop science department.”
Davies said he’s interested in the work of Dr. Frank Hons, a professor of soil science, and in learning more about the key role soil carbon plays in grass production. Also he met with Dr. Jamie Foster, AgriLife Research forage agronomist and head of the grassland research at Beeville, and Dr. Monte Rouquette, Texas AgriLife Research forage scientist, and Vanessa Corriher, Texas AgriLife Extension Service forage specialist, both at Overton.
Another area of interest is Jessup’s work.
“In my area, the dairy industry has a larger interest in grassland management than beef,” Davies said. “It will be interesting to see how the grass-fed beef area has come about and how it is growing. I am very interested to talk about varieties of grasses that respond to a range of conditions and the different challenges faced.”
Jessup said the grass-fed beef market is an emerging consumer-driven market that is not well developed yet, but one that is gaining a lot of interest. He is accompanying Davies onto producers’ farms around the state, and he said this is giving him an excellent opportunity “to make sure the perennial grasses I’m developing in my program are adaptable to them.
“As a perennial grass breeder, my task is to develop improved perennial grasses suitable as forages and biofuels,” Jessup said. “We also have a large interest in developing dual-use biofuel forage crops.”
He has been with Texas A&M for three years and plans to release his first new cultivar next year.
Two crops in his program that will have interest to producers, Jessup said, are sterile Columbus grass, which is a perennial sorghum that does not set seed, and a hybrid between pearl millet and Napier-grass, which provides a high-biomass, seeded-yet-sterile perennial feedstock.
Davies said there are certain parts of the U.K. that get no more than 23 inches of rain a year, and they struggle to grow high quality forage in large quantities. He believes there is a good chance the grasses Jessup is developing will work in those regions.
“I’m fascinated by the amount of research, the breadth of research, going on related to soil fertility and new forage species,” he said. “We’ve had a big biomass plant recently fire up on the west coast of England. Because a lot of the farmers may be tempted to provide fuel for the plant, producers will want to look at biomass grasses.”
Davies said his visit to Texas A&M exceeded his expectations, “with the staff and their knowledge being of the highest caliber” and a large help to his study.