Nuffield scholar focuses on energy-dense forages

Study will explore using energy-dense perennial forages as annuals 

One learns fairly quickly upon first meeting him that Clayton Robins is a bundle-of-energy person. So it comes as no surprise that the 2013 Nuffield Scholar has actually travelled the world to learn more about energy.

Energy-dense forages, that is.

“Every other country I visited looks at sugars in forages except here in North America,” says Robins, who now spends his post-Nuffield Scholar travelling days as executive director of the Manitoba 4-H Council.

“We are fibre-focused. My report will provide a big-picture perspective as to how we can adapt the beef production model we currently are using, which will require a shift in thinking. I feel very privileged for a guy from Rivers to present my report and knowledge on beef production gleaned from the top experts in the world. There was no other way for me to do that without doing so as a Nuffield Scholar.”

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Robins still operates a mixed farm in Rivers, Man., with wife Rebecca and son Quinn, who Clayton says stepped up bigtime during his Nuffield travels to keep the farm in good stead with the help of Clayton’s parents, Brian and Arlene, who live on the property as well.

“I travelled to Argentina, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Sweden, Finland, U.S.A., Australia, and New Zealand for my study,” says Robins. “I met with some of the top scientists in their field, in their respective countries and, in some cases, globally, with top producers in each country, as well as leading extension experts and consultants.”

Robins expects his much-anticipated energetics-themed study to be ready for peer review and distribution soon. He mentions two themes: energy-dense perennial forages used as annuals and early development of marbling cells in calves.

“The report will focus on several key areas as to the impact of incorporating energy-dense forages into key points in Canadian and, in particular, Prairie beef production systems,” Robins says. “Utilizing specific species of short-term perennial forages capable of high levels of metabolizable energy that are currently not often considered due to overwintering ability, is the core of the strategy being recommended in the report.”

He says focusing on sugar and digestible fibre to evaluate their potential is key, and that data collected from experts around the world will demonstrate that the grazing of these forages has the potential to:

  • Provide several positive benefits to rumen digestive efficiency.
  • Decrease greenhouse gas emissions versus traditional grazing.
  • Lower the beef carbon footprint.
  • Improve soil structure and biology, in addition to sequestering carbon.
  • Induce programming of intra-muscular fat cells in suckling calves.
  • Improve the healthiness and eating quality of forage-fed beef.

Robins says his report will also address the potential for improved energetic efficiencies and the role of genomics in the strategy. The Canadian Prairies, he says, have an advantage over other regions regarding the potential for plants to accumulate high levels of water-soluble carbohydrates (sugars).

“Longer days, cool evenings, and degree of solar intensity provide the basis for this opportunity,” says Robins. “High-sugar forages elicit beneficial shifts in rumen fatty acid profiles and microbial communities that mimic grain-feeding, without the same risk for acidosis. All I hope is that the report will motivate the right people to ask the right questions. And then, eventually, we will get the right answers.”

This article was originally published in the 2015 Forage & Grassland Guide

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