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Published November 02, 2010, 10:49 AM

Streeter station nearly coming into 30 years

STREETER, N.D. — Next summer, Paul Nyren will have been at the Central Grasslands Research and Extension Center for 30 years — the only director the center has ever had.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

STREETER, N.D. — Next summer, Paul Nyren will have been at the Central Grasslands Research and Extension Center for 30 years — the only director the center has ever had.

A lot has changed in three decades, he says. The center covers a lot of ground with its grazing research, but now also is working in areas on biomass research and carbon sequestration. Instead of initial three employees. The center now has nine permanent staff, including eco-physiologist, a range scientist and a forage agronomist. A new animal scientist will come at the beginning of the new year. Three of the four staff scientists hold doctorates.

“We can do good science as well as applied work that will help producers,” he says.

Nyren grew up on a small farm in southwest Iowa and graduated high school in 1961. Discouraged from coming back to the farm, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard. He ended his hitch in Seattle, where he met and married Anne Mulvihill. Anne was born and raised in Ireland. She came to the United States as a governess and moved to Seattle to stay with an uncle.

After the service, Nyren enrolled at Washington State University in Pullman.

“I started out thinking I wanted to be a forester, but then I wanted to see where I was going, so I went into range science,” Nyren says.

Eventually, that brought him to North Dakota — a place he never imagined living.

Following the work

Nyren’s department chairman had connections with NDSU researchers and in early 1975, Nyren went to work as an NDSU botanist/range scientist on a temporary team based in Mandan, N.D., that was studying coal land reclamation. That fall, he transferred to NDSU’s Dickinson Research and Extension Center.

In 1981, Nyren applied for the post as the director of a brand new NDSU research station in Streeter, N.D. — the first to be established in decades. (Anne always helped with bookwork at the center, and eventually became the center’s administrative officer.)

“The idea for this research center started with a number of producers in the area,” Nyren says.

He credits influential stockmen such as Jack Dahl of Gackle, N.D., and Delbert Moore of Forbes, N.D., for pushing for the center’s establishment. Moore, Dahl and others felt strongly that livestock and range research wasn’t represented well east of the Missouri River. They wanted something that addressed the special climate variability of the middle, driven by what Moore liked to refer to as the “vagaries of the weather,” Nyren recalls.

The 1977 Legislature established it, the 1979 Legislature authorized the land purchase, and the 1981 Legislature funded the staff.

Grazing systems studies

Early on, Nyren and his colleagues focused on grazing systems. They reasoned farmers could import cattle genetics, but the soils, the weather, the environment needed research. NDSU faculty wanted to study grazing on the large pastures that hadn’t been available before.

NDSU range scientist Don Kirby started a cell grazing study on eight pastures within a half-section of land. Elsewhere on the station, range scientist Bill Barker used four pastures to do a “twice-over” rotation.

Nyren worked to lengthen the grazing season by using crested wheatgrass, which greens up especially early and then can be grazed in late April and early May. The cattle would go to the native pastures in late June and stay there until September.

In 1988, the center added a grazing intensity study. Here, they used funds from the Legislature to hire a range scientist, Bob Patton, from Kansas.

“You have to know how hard you can push a pasture without degrading the land,” Nyren says.

The study compared five intensity levels and has been running for 20 years.

“It’s one of the few long-term grazing ecological studies in the country,” Nyren says.

One of the tricky parts is maintaining funding across that time span, he says.

“The fact that we have general fund money for this is extremely valuable,” he says.

The center uses yearling heifers to do the grazing studies.

The project does three yield clips a year — once before the cattle go on in the spring, one at peak production and and once after the cattle come off. The scientists monitor soil water every 15 days from spring to freeze-up.

Labor is a limiting factor.

“As much as we automate things, we haven’t been able to find a way to measure plant production and plant responses without going on our hands and knees with a set of clippers, taking plants out and weighing them,” Nyren says. “You can’t use photography or some other device to measure production. You need to determine whether the plants are becoming more or less numerous.”

Nyren says that once the study determines what’s happening to pasture plant mixes, the study may be converted to determining how to bring the native range back to a good condition.

Already the study is producing “millions of data points” — frequencies and densities of various range species.

“If we have weedy species that cattle won’t eat, if they’re grazing the other plants, the weeds are going to have a competitive advantage, he says.

“If there’s a plant the cattle really like and they remove the top leaves, the plant has no way to make food — its roots are smaller, the tops are smaller, it’s starving to death, in layman’s terms,” Nyren says. “We need to monitor to determine which of those might, at some point, be identified as a ‘key species.’ In other words, if you don’t have this plant, or if this one is scarce, that means you’re in a degraded state.”

The station continues with 5,300 acres. About 1,300 are in forages under cultivation.

“We raise all of our own feed,” Nyren says. “We have 200 acres of corn, which varies from year to year — oats, barley. We raise some annual crops for forage as well as for grain. The 1,300 acres also includes all of our hay ground — alfalfa or grass-alfalfa, primarily.”

The rest, about 4,000 is “native range,” which is to say perennial grasses that are grazed. (Nyren acknowledges it’s not the same as before Europeans came to the country because livestock there are new weed species, and species like Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome.)

Among other things, the scientists have learned that federal grazing guidelines sometimes can be bumped up for places like Streeter, depending on local rainfall conditions.

“We have a couple more inches of rain than New Salem or Dickinson” so grazing more intensively can be more done safely,” Nyren says.

They found that Streeter pastures carry up to 200 species of plants — some rare, some common. Diversity is a goal of many environmental groups, but how to get there isn’t always intuitive.

“We haven’t seen a big change in species diversity under heavy grazing, but we do see a decline of diversity under no grazing,” Nyren says.

That can be important information ranchers when environmental activists push for less grazing.

Other project areas of current interest at the station:

n Early grazing: Guojie Wang (pronounced Wong) started eight months ago. Wang soon will do some range ecology studies on the effects of early grazing. He’s looking to see whether early-season grazing can be managed to reduce Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome grass invasive species. The study is expected to last at least five years and may be extended if answers aren’t found.

Some plants are more palatable to the cattle, so they’ll seek them out and graze them more heavily, Nyren explains.

“Cattle tend to be grass eaters,” he says. “If you drive by a pasture that’s pretty heavily grazed, you’ll notice some forbs that are hardly touched — gum weed, sagebrush, other forbs — where with sheep or goats they’ll use a lot more of the forbs.”

n Carbon sequestration: Xuejun Dong, an eco-physiologist, is measuring some basic fundamental elements of the prairie, looking at things like root respiration and carbon sequestration. His goal is to develop a model that land managers and producers can use to predict what will happen if they increase livestock grazing pressure.

“Modeling is a long-term project,” Nyren says, predicting this work will be extremely valuable as Dong learns more about what’s happening below-ground when grazing intensities are changed.

n Biomass studies: Nyren and Wang are studying study perennial forages, including switchgrass, as potential energy sources. World and U.S. energy policies are putting more emphasis on renewable energy, and some think switchgrass is one that holds promise.

“There are a lot of really smart people working to come up with a really good alternative fuels to oil,” Nyren says. “The reality is that it’s expensive to extract oil. There’s no more $40 (per barrel) oil out there; now it’s $70 and up.” That makes energy production from biomass more thinkable.

One of the curious things about the biofuels inquiries is that the Streeter researchers don’t judge the crops on typical quality standards for livestock feed — things like protein content. It’s strictly how much cellulose and hemi-cellulose they can make.

Among others, the Natural Resources Trust, a group in North Dakota that is interested in wildlife habitat, is the lead organizations for his study, which involves numerous groups. This is part of gathering information in anticipation of the Great River Energy’s coal-fired electrical generating plant Spiritwood, N.D., which to use at least 20 percent biomass. NDSU’s is interested in how farmers can make money raising perennial forages for this purpose and what crops are best.

The scientists are comparing every-year harvests with yields when harvested every other year to determine compatibility of biomass production with wildlife habitat. The Agricultural Research Service in Mandan, N.D., is working on the carbon sequestration results, which could be another income stream.

Nyren and Wang are working on a project that is comparing production of a number of grasses and grass mixes, with plots in Carrington, Minot, Williston, Hettinger and Mandan and Wing, N.D. They’re in year five of a 10-year project.

One preliminary conclusion is that switchgrass — a warm-season grass, like corn — starts its growth later in the year and requires a more water than they normally get in western North Dakota.

Under irrigated plots in Williston, switchgrass growth has been “fantastic,” Nyren says, as it grows 4 feet tall and produces 6 to 7 tons per acre. On nonirrigated sites, however, the production has been almost nonexistent. Nonirrigated Minot production has been good, with plants 6 feet tall to the tops of the seed heads.

n Alarming bluegrass: Grazing intensity trials in Streeter and elsewhere are showing that Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome grass are “invading our native range at an alarming rate,” Nyren says.

“It’s worst in areas that are ungrazed.” Nyren says.

Why? There is no definitive answer, Nyren says.

One explanation is that Kentucky bluegrass is opportunistic.

“If it has moisture, it stays green even if you mow the bejabbers out of it,” Nyren says. “Also, if the cows mow down your pasture, it’s harder on the native species than it is on the bluegrass. It also has a root system closer to the surface, which is why people can cut sod, and why places that raise sod don’t get lower in elevation over. Also, if you get a 0.2- or 0.3-inch rain, bluegrass absorbs most of it, but the moisture doesn’t get down into the soil where the native grass roots are. Also — like a lawn — it tends to go dormant really quickly. All of these things give it a competitive edge.”

Ironically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has noticed bluegrass becoming more dominant in Wildlife Production Areas, where there’s been no grazing for years.