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With climate change creating once-in-a-generation weather events this summer, the need for research on plant and animal resilience is becoming increasingly apparent. 

That’s one reason why newly proposed legislation that would allocate $75 million to support research and collaboration among colleges and universities, would be a step in the right direction, according to Paul Beck, an Oklahoma State University Extension Professor of Animal Science. 

“The great thing about this proposed research is it helps fund those types of projects that have not really been focused on as far as funding in the past,” Beck told Tribal Business News. “It could jumpstart or increase the capacity to do research to study resilience in our animals and these important traits in them.”

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Those “important traits” include resistance to heat, local toxins such as poisonous plants, cold, and disease, Beck said. The research in question centers on gathering data from wide arrays of samples while comparing it to long term studies of productivity and survivability in each region. 

Beck spoke with Tribal Business News to discuss the “breeds” part of the new Seeds and Breeds of the Future Act in detail, including what a tribal partnership might look like — and where bison, recently reintroduced by many tribes into their existing food systems, sit on the resilience scale.

When you talk about a regionally adapted breed of animal, what kind of traits are you looking for?

We’ve known for a very long time that when we focus only on economically important traits like average daily gain, weaning weight, milk production, carcass quality — yes we need to keep those in mind … but if we focus only on those, we start losing resilience or robustness. That can show up in different ways, whether it’s an ability to withstand environmental challenges like heat stress, or disease exposure.

You’re out in Stillwater, Oklahoma. What are the challenges facing animals out there? 

Well, the thing is Oklahoma is one state. But if you look at heading into the Southeastern United States from Fort Smith and going east, then you’ve got a rainfall difference of maybe 5 inches anywhere in an area there. If you go west from Fort Smith to here in Stillwater, you’ve got a rainfall difference of 10 inches on average. 

Essentially, what works on one side of the state may not work on the other side of the state, so it’s not a one-size fits all kind of thing, even just within Oklahoma. We do see heat tolerance, and lately animals have needed an ability to withstand cold stress — two years in a row, we’ve had record low temperatures — and a resilience to handling and life out on the feed yard, or being productive on particular grazing environments. 

Do you see any trends particular to one side of the state? 

In Eastern Oklahoma, tolerance to toxins would be of great importance, because we’ve got plant species out there we don’t really get east of I-35

How do you go about getting this kind of data? What do you look at ?

It’s really a multifaceted approach. We look at long-term productivity in different environments, as well as the performance and quality of the animal, which is mainly studying a lot of data that comes through extensive sampling of different animal systems. That helps us test things like immunology, where we’re looking at blood, liver biopsies, or even just fecal matter and hair cortisol  as measures of stress and stress resilience. 

If this research were funded, what does a potential tribal partnership look like? 

With that money you could do some very highly valuable, very applied projects to move that needle forward in showing these adaptability traits and showing the value of those traits in different regions of the state. 

A lot of the work at the Extension is working throughout the state to show people how to farm. We do a lot of farm research and demonstrations to show people the potential and how these concepts that we research work. 

In my case, we work with tribal ranches and their farming operations to do that farm research in that area with them. This funding would help us improve the infrastructure we use to do that. Going out, sharing this research and working on it together is not super highly technical, but it does take some extra labor and infrastructure, so this would assist in getting those projects pulled off. 

A lot of tribes are reintroducing bison into their systems in some form or another. How would this research benefit them, or benefit from them?

I knew that question would come up. My thought on this is that this is an animal that has been on the plains in this area for 10,000 years or so, at least. We have what we’re going into with climate change, but there’s always been some flux in the climate and those bison thrived throughout all these environments. 

I feel like that could be a very resilient species that could be worked into a lot of these regional food production systems. This type of proposed grant or grant program would be very valuable in getting those proof of concepts going and getting those production systems in place with the scientific basis behind them. 

So research on growing animals that are native to the area is an option, too?

I think this kind of [research] helps, when we’re not bringing in breeds that don’t fit the environment and feeding them through the stressors. It helps us take breeds and plant species that fit our environment, and utilize those so that our calving season or other production system, whatever it is, actually fits the area around us. 

Is it important to kind of meet the natural environment halfway like that?

We can try and force our environment to fit our production system through feed and fertilizer, or whatever, but as we’re getting into more expensive fertilizer, more expensive fuel - everything’s going up. 

It becomes more and more important that we instead make our production systems fit the environment. If we can make our design or production system where it's working with the environment within our production parameters that the environment gives us, then we're very much long-term, more resilient, more sustainable, both environmentally and economically.

About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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