Sarah Steele

NORTH POWDER — Dr. Guojie Wang’s name might be hard to pronounce but his goal is easy for any farmer or rancher to understand — how to grow the most cattle feed on a given piece of ground.

To avoid tongue-twisting, Wang introduced himself as “G” during his presentation, “Water-Efficient Forages for Eastern Oregon,” last Thursday in North Powder.

He then underscored who he is and what he does by quoting an unnamed producer: “There is a Chinese guy doing forage research related to water-use efficiency in Eastern Oregon. He is funny and easy to talk to.”

More formally, Wang works as an assistant professor for Oregon State University’s Agricultural and Natural Resources Program at Eastern Oregon University, and he can be contacted through the OSU Extension Service.

Wang is dedicated to utilizing his geographic-specific research at the Union Research Station to help farmers and ranchers in Eastern Oregon grow cattle feed crops in a customized way that maximizes returns.

Wang grew up on a two-acre farm in rural China. This operation was different both in scale and climate from rural Eastern Oregon, but Wang surmises that there is at least one lesson to be gleaned from his childhood farm: biodiversity.

Wang’s family had to survive entirely off those two acres, and planting a single crop simply wasn’t an option.

In modern farming, monocrops are also proving problematic. Wang believes cattle forages are perfect candidates for paving the way for agricultural biodiversity. Unlike crops that are sold in essentially the same format in which they’re grown, he said, forages are simply part of the protein chain — consumers aren’t concerned with whether their steak was fed with alfalfa or with oats.

It is therefore easier to diversify forages than it is to diversify, for example, mint or tomatoes, and Wang offered himself as a resource to the Eastern Oregon farming and ranching community as a consultant to help establish which species will grow best on particular properties.

“In a 500-acre ranch,” he said, “species A might work best on 200 acres, species B should go on another 200 acres, and species C can be planted throughout the remainder of the land.”

Wang’s ideas are based on his research of more than 40 species of annual and perennial forages, in which he assessed the efficiency of the plants in various conditions. These include soil quality, water availability and ecosystem viability, speak to why biodiversity is so integral in successful forage crops — soil quality changes across one property, water availability changes throughout the season, and ecosystem viability changes depending on what other species are sharing the same resources.

The Powder Basin Watershed Council sponsored Wang’s lecture, and its executive director, Christo Morris, emphasized in his introduction how Wang’s research can help local farmers and ranchers choose crops that reduce their irrigation needs.

In fact, Wang joked that Morris changed the title of his presentation to reflect the importance of water efficiency.

Wang went on to explain that, ideally, scientists would discover a super species of forage that uses the least amount of resources, including water, while simultaneously producing the greatest yield.

While this discovery or development might happen in the future, Wang acknowledged the limitations of modern science: an irrigated crop will always produce better than an unirrigated crop for the time being.

However, he reminded his audience, there are “sweet spots” of efficiency, where particular varieties of forages that can most effectively use water are the best current option.

The goal, then, is to find or develop the strains of species that will utilize minimal resources and provide maximum economic and superior environmental outcomes.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer