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Farm Byline: April 2022

The relevance of ag research

by Al Gustin

There was a time when farmers needed to know if spring or fall plowing resulted in higher yields of wheat and barley. There was a time when the temperature of grain stored in steel bins versus wooden bins was a concern. Both of those issues were addressed by agricultural research in North Dakota in 1941.

There have always been issues – questions that need answers. But the issues are ever-changing. Research findings that were relevant 10, 20 or 40 years ago may be interesting today, but are no longer relevant. If you’re a researcher, how do you design research and get support for that research if the answers may or may not be relevant in the future?

Twelve years ago, the questions on the minds of cattlemen included, “Can we afford to feed $7-a-bushel corn to cattle? Can we finish cattle, get them to a choice grade, with less corn?” At the Northern Great Plains Research Lab near Mandan, Research Animal Scientist Scott Kronberg began a study to see if cattle that were genetically different, primarily smaller, would “finish” using less corn, or no corn. I recall doing a news report about the so-called “square meater” bulls he was using.

By the time the study was completed, corn prices had fallen to near $3 a bushel. Cattle feeders were using lots of corn, feeding it to larger-framed cattle that took longer to finish. Corn was abundant and cheap, and every bushel of grain fed to cattle made money. Kronberg’s research had little relevance.

I thought of all that in early March, as the country elevator price of corn had climbed back to over $7 a bushel. The war in Ukraine was largely responsible, although global weather concerns had provided some support earlier in the winter. I wondered, would Kronberg’s findings, which seemed irrelevant just a few years ago, find resurrected interest?

And so it is with agricultural research, especially long-term ag research. By the time the research is completed, the answers may no longer be relevant. But, then again, you never know.

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.