March 3, 2017 03:46 PM

A former Minnesota forage extension specialist and director of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center. He and his wife now operate an Ohio blueberry farm.

Neal Martin

HFG: What experience or person was most instrumental in your decision to make the forage industry a lifelong career?

NM: Walter Wedin. Starting my master’s degree at Iowa State University I wanted to become a soybean physiologist, but Walt was the only professor who would accept me. During a discussion about future direction and my career, he asked me what part of dairy farming and undergraduate studies at Ohio State I liked. My answer was forage crops. After completing my master’s degree, Walt offered a three-quarter-time associate position, and I decided to pursue a joint Ph.D. program in agronomy and animal science with Walt and Richard Vetter.

HFG: During those years in Minnesota, it must have been enjoyable to work through a period when major changes were occurring in terms of alfalfa cutting schedules and forage testing. Tell us about that.

NM: I am blessed to have been able to work in Minnesota with a strong research team on campus, an interdisciplinary group of extension specialists, great county agents who welcomed field projects, and many innovative farmers. One of my first dairy meetings was with Mike Hutjens. I was fully armed with new data from Gordon Marten (three-cut schedules to maximize protein yield). On the way back to St. Paul, Mike said, “If you’re going to continue doing dairy meetings, you have to get rid of that cutting study. Dairy farmers need to know how to reduce the fiber and enhance the energy from alfalfa.”

From that point, I was driven to find a better answer, and several cutting schedule studies that were done in Minnesota helped me reach that end. We recognized that forage quality (relative feed value, at the time) dropped rapidly in those first two cuttings and that they needed to be cut early for high-energy feed.

Forage quality changes were more dynamic. Some highlights included serving on the 1978 Alfalfa Hay Quality Standards Committee, initiating the National Hay Testing Association, and receiving a USDA grant to partially support the purchase of a near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS) testing van for Minnesota. The van project provided a tool for agents, farm advisers, industry reps, and farmers to enhance harvested forage quality and assess feeds before being fed. It also led to the initiation of quality-tested hay auctions in the state.

HFG: Compared to your Minnesota years, university extension and forage research positions have been drastically cut across the United States. Does this concern you?

NM: Since I started at the University of Minnesota, forage teaching and research faculty in the department of agronomy and plant genetics declined from four to one; USDA-ARS positions have experienced significant declines as well. The problem-solving programs we used in my days are now limited or nonexistent. At the same time, ruminant livestock and perennial forages are key elements to global sustainability in terms of land preservation and water quality.

HFG: Following your career in Minnesota, you accepted the director position at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Wis. How did your extension career make you a better research director?

NM: My Minnesota experience taught me that to solve problems there needed to be key people involved in the planning, execution, and dissemination of solutions. The U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center (USDFRC) had the ideal mission to implement this model. During my tenure as director, I started to incorporate industry collaboration and input from innovative farmers. Clive Holland, retired forage production manager from Pioneer-DuPont, helped establish an active USDFRC stakeholder committee to support development of multidisciplinary problem-solving research of national significance.

USDFRC scientists were interdisciplinary, but many disciplines were needed to solve forage production and dairy utilization problems. We were able to build needed discipline expertise and establish the Institute for Environmentally Integrated Dairy Management in Marshfield, Wis. Most of the new hires during the expansion of the USDFRC effort had a strong outreach component in their background, and I wanted to participate in outreach myself.

HFG: Does any accomplishment stand out while you were at the USDFRC?

NM: Consortium for Alfalfa Improvement. Redesigning alfalfa for dairy cattle needed an industry-public-private partnership. It was a pleasure working with Mark McCaslin from Forage Genetics International and Richard Dixon at the Noble Foundation to form the consortium. USDFRC scientist involvement within the team to improve forage digestibility (reduced lignin) and protein utilization (reduction of proteolysis and the addition of tannins) of alfalfa for dairy cattle was essential. Being part of the excitement of basic scientists developing gene silencing when proof of concept feeding trial results first appeared was second to none; more important will be farmer discovery.

HFG: Looking back on your career, where do you feel the forage industry has made its greatest advances that have translated to farm profitability?

NM: Application of NIRS to standardize, describe, and value forage quality needed by each livestock class.

HFG: Where do you feel there is still a significant forage knowledge gap that needs to be addressed?

NM: We need animal digestion data. We have used too much modeling based on outdated nutrition data to develop forage, feed, and supplement diets, especially for high-producing dairy cows. Using new knowledge related to digestive microbiology and rapidly changing animal genetics, it’s time to research and rewrite our body of knowledge pertaining to animal nutrition. USDFRC is well positioned to do this.

HFG: What new forage technology is particularly exciting to you?

NM: It would have to be advances in harvest technology — leaf-strippers, in-line quality analysis on balers, and yield monitors on balers and choppers. We need equipment to enable better utilization of redesigned alfalfa. More important, we need to improve alfalfa yields. A state yield average of 3.0 to 3.5 tons per acre is shameful.

HFG: Has operating a blueberry farm in retirement taught you any new agricultural lessons?

NM: The necessity to make production decisions without having all detailed information has been huge for me. I have a greater appreciation for the time that’s required to improve production. I am still learning after 13 seasons, and my respect for farmers and farming has been enhanced.

HFG: Favorite food?

NM: Yellow perch.

This article appeared in the February 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 24.

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