Feb. 15, 2018 08:00 AM

Recently retired research scientist at the USDA-ARS Forage-Animal Production Research Unit in Lexington, Ky.

Glen Aiken

HFG: Was it design or chance that led you to a research career in livestock-forage agriculture?

GA: I would say a little of both. My father sold sausage casings, so I spent a great deal of time in my youth in meat packing plants. My grandfather was a cattle producer, and my best memories are from the time I spent with him on his farm. I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas A&M University in animal science. My original plan was to get accepted to vet school, which like so many others was beyond the reach of my grade point average. I took a couple of forage courses along with the required animal nutrition and feeds and feeding courses, and it was from those courses that I gained an interest in forage-based livestock production.

Wanting to take advantage of the oil boom in the late ‘70s, I spent four years after my undergraduate studies working for an offshore gas production company. After the oil experience and getting married, I decided to go to graduate school. I went back to Texas A&M to conduct master’s research that evaluated weight gain efficiency and forage utilization of yearling horses (not that I am a horse person) on bermudagrass pasture.

In my first semester, I took a graduate forage course taught by the late Billy Conrad, and it was a field trip to the Texas A&M Research and Education Center at Overton that had a major impact on my thinking. Monte Rouquette, a forage physiologist located at the center, gave us a tour and discussed his grazing research program. It was at this point that I decided to pursue a career in forage and grazing research, and I never looked back! Through advice from Conrad and Rouquette, I obtained a Ph.D. in forage agronomy from the University of Florida, working with Buddy Pitman and Carroll Chambliss.

HFG: Having spent much of your career at the USDA-ARS Forage-Animal Production Research Unit in Lexington, Ky., it’s not surprising that a large part of your research has focused on tall fescue. What component of that research has been the most fulfilling?

GA: We were successful in developing management approaches to mitigating fescue toxicosis in cattle exposed to toxic tall fescue by: 1) suppressing seedhead emergence of toxic endophyte-infected tall fescue by spraying Chaparral herbicide in the early spring, 2) feeding soy hulls, and 3) overseeding toxic fescue with clovers.

It was also fulfilling to determine with another ARS scientist, Jimmy Klotz, that the vascular systems of cattle exhibiting fescue toxicosis can recover in five to seven weeks. I was also fortunate to collaborate with Michael Flythe and Brittany Harlow in conducting studies that demonstrated some breakdown of toxic alkaloids by rumen microbes. This research is ongoing to better understand the extent of ruminal degradation of ergot alkaloids.

HFG: Has there been a research question that you regretted not finding an acceptable answer for?

GA: I always wanted to initiate a research project that thoroughly evaluated co-product feeds (soy hulls, wet and dry distillers grains, bakery waste, brewers grains, and so forth) and compare nutritive values and animal responses. It is these feeds that are being fed on the farm, even though the co-product feed of choice changes from region to region, depending on source and supply. We know the chemical composition of most of these feeds, but I think the feed value could really be enhanced with small additions of either corn or soybean meal and still be cost-effective feed supplements to pastured livestock. I wish I had done more of this research.

HFG: Where do you see the current state of tall fescue management? What are producers doing well and where are many of them still falling short?

GA: We know how to manage tall fescue to get the most out of production and utilization. There are more good cattle producers who are planting nontoxic endophyte-infected tall fescues, while there are some who are managing around fescue toxicosis by either interseeding clovers into toxic fescue, chemically suppressing toxic seedheads, or feeding co-product feeds to raise the plane of nutrition for their fescue cattle. However, there are still a number of producers who accept the lower level of animal performance from toxic fescue. I am not sure that will ever change.

HFG: What do you feel the next focus should be for tall fescue research? Any thoughts on the effort to breed fescue toxicosis-tolerant cattle?

GA: I strongly believe that the project launched by the USDA-ARS Forage-Animal Production (Lexington, Ky.) and Meat Animal (Clay Center, Neb.) Research Units and the Animal and Food Sciences Department at the University of Kentucky to identify ergot alkaloid-tolerant cattle will be extremely worthwhile. There could be some very beneficial technologies developed from this effort.

HFG: Aside from tall fescue, what current forage research do you think will have significant ramifications in the future?

GA: There is some very exciting research that is underway: 1) identifying natural plant secondary metabolites with potential to replace synthetic growth promoters, 2) genetic markers for identifying cattle with disease resistance, 3) development of new vaccines, and 4) team efforts between animal, plant, and soil scientists to enhance grassland ecosystems.

HFG: Though the University of Kentucky has always been a shining forage star, do you have any concerns that resources (people and money) being put into forage research and teaching by universities and USDA are dwindling?

GA: Productive soils continue to be covered by concrete as the world population grows. The challenges to sustainably produce food as we move forward are obvious to the agricultural community but, unfortunately, not the consumers. Up to this point, the Green Revolution can be credited with meeting the challenges over the last decades. We must generate new technologies for increasing production efficiencies as we move toward 2050. I find it very disconcerting that funding of agricultural research is declining when there is such a critical need for research.

HFG: Although you have always held a research appointment, it’s been clear that you put a high value on producer interaction and education. Why do you feel this is important for researchers?

GA: Livestock producers do not subscribe to research journals and there are fewer extension specialists to disseminate new information and technologies to them. Why put effort and funding into developing new technologies and solutions if it will never reach stakeholders? Also, how can you have knowledge and understanding of the problems and obstacles of an industry if you do not interact with your stakeholders?

HFG: Now that you’ve retired from the ARS facility in Lexington, what are your plans and do you intend to stay involved in the forage-livestock industry?

GA: Actually, I have accepted a position as director of the North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy. I will no longer be conducting forage and animal research, but will be assisting those who do as well as those in other agricultural disciplines.

HFG: Favorite food?

GA: That would have to be medium-rare beef. Some cuts of beef are better than others, but they are all good!

This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 18 and 19.

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