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Robins eager to embark on Nuffield-funded world tour

With a $15,000 Nuffield scholarship in hand, Clayton Robins is getting ready to pack his bags for a trip of a lifetime.

The fourth-generation rancher from Rivers and former Agriculture Canada research technician will take a temporary hiatus from his current job as executive director of 4-H Manitoba this summer to learn more about how Brix testing can be used as a yardstick to measure pasture and forage quality. His 10-week world tour will take him to Argentina, Wales, Ireland and Australia.

Brix is a measure of sugar content and it caught Robins’ attention when he attended a lecture by Anibal Pordomingo, an Argentinian grass-fed beef expert. His Brix refractometry data indicated a direct correlation between soluble carbohydrate levels in forages and the productivity of beef cattle on pasture. Robins’ previous research work had focused on fibre analysis of pasture plants in order to determine digestible energy, and he was captivated by Pordomingo’s work, which showed that a low-cost, hand-held tool for measuring sugar content in plant juices could be used to quickly measure plant and soil health.

“It was one of those ‘aha’ moments,” said Robins. “It showed a direct, linear link between simple sugar content and gain.”

Brix testing could be used to select pasture plants that offer higher levels of sugars for longer periods, and to monitor the effects of grazing systems on forage quality with the aim of extending the grazing season and displacing the need for costly feedlot rations in finishing beef, he said.

As part of his scholarship, Robins must write and present a 10,000-word report explaining his findings at a Nuffield convention in November 2014.

“I want to pull in information about the economics and hopefully the energetic effects of these systems in terms of energy in and energy out, because energy is going to be a big issue in the future,” said Robins.

But because Brix test results are a “moving target” largely dependent on the time of day, cloud cover, stand maturity and a host of other factors, Robins said he intends to include studies of digestible fibre components in his search for ways to grow “dense energy forages” on the Prairies.

The sugar content of crops and its role in grain production has been explored for many years, but the practice is still relatively new to the realm of forages, he added.

“I want to go out and find the stuff that hasn’t been published,” said Robins. “It’s a matter of compiling it all and putting it into one really good story.”

Nuffield scholarships are awarded to non-academic, forward-thinking people from Commonwealth countries to encourage them to travel internationally and share the knowledge gained with their fellow farmers and communities.

“It’s an amazing opportunity. I feel like I’m a part of something way bigger than I could have ever imagined,” said Robins, adding that the 1,300 Nuffield Scholars around the world represent a living network of individuals who are ready to share information — and couch space for visiting fellow scholars — long after their own trips are over.

Nuffield scholarships, which are offered to persons from ages 25 to 45, are one of the Canadian farming communities “best-kept secrets,” and something 4-H members and future farm leaders should look into, he said.

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