By Audry Olmsted
Tucumcari science center learns from past to build future of agricultural research
In the last 100 years, New Mexico State University’s Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari has undergone many changes. Literal horse power has made way for the modern conveniences of tractors and plows. Researchers who depended solely on precipitation for crop production a century ago, shifted focus to production under irrigated conditions, but are now returning to a focus on the production of crops with little or no available irrigation water.
But, one thing has not changed – the desire to perform innovative research to help agricultural producers be secure and profitable in a time when each passing day brings new challenges to farmers and ranchers.
“Our research is driven by the needs of the community because when irrigation water is available, alfalfa and pastures are a significant component of production here as throughout New Mexico, and when irrigation water is not available, we are in the same predicament as producers in trying to find ways to continue production at some level,” said Leonard Lauriault, forage agronomist at the science center.
As NMSU’s oldest off campus research facility, the center’s mission is to develop forage and grazing systems for irrigated lands in the western U.S., and the evaluation of crops and cropping systems for local adaptation.
In 1908, the Quay County Commission established the Quay County Experiment Station by purchasing 160 acres of land one mile east of Tucumcari. Research work was done at this location for close to three years, but it was soon determined to be a poor site since the soil was mostly caliche, a hardened deposit of calcium carbonate that prevents crops from receiving needed oxygen.
It was at this time the U.S. Department of Agriculture established its Division of Dryland Agriculture in the Bureau of Plant Industry, and was planning to set up 25 experiment stations covering the Great Plains region from Montana to southern Texas to study the proper cultural methods to grow crops in semi-arid regions.
At the request of the New Mexico Experiment Station and local citizens, USDA officials visited Tucumcari and agreed to locate a station there for research. The community came together and bought 320 acres of land where the station now operates.
The land was deeded to the former New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts and Tucumcari residents were later repaid for their investment.
Construction of the buildings at the station began in 1911 and field operations started in 1912.
Focus: Then and now
“The center has evolved over time,” said Rex Kirksey, superintendent of the Tucumcari science center. “In the beginning, it concentrated on rainfed or dryland agricultural production, feeding of cattle, and tree and shrub plantings for landscape improvement and for windbreak purposes.”
With the arrival of irrigation water from the Arch Hurley Conservancy District in 1952, the research emphasis shifted to irrigated crop production.
In 1961, the New Mexico Beef Cattle Performance Association began using the science center as home for its annual Tucumcari Bull Test. The test, which gathers objective performance data, such as rate-of-grain and feed conversion of beef bulls and their sires, is aimed at encouraging herd improvement through the use of performance tested bulls. The program culminates each year with a bull sale in March. In 2011, the program celebrated 50 years.
Tucumcari established a reputation as an irrigated pastures research center in the 1970s and the 1980s saw research expand into the areas of horticulture and field crops. For the past 15 years, the center has had a strong emphasis on forage crops, primarily alfalfa, and has also focused on other crops, including cotton, sunflower, kenaf and legumes, for use as intercrops and forages. Research efforts have also included tillage systems for limited irrigated and rainfed crop production.
Each August, the center hosts its Annual Field Day, which consists of an evening dinner and hay wagon tour to give the public, as well as NMSU faculty, staff and students, an inside look at current research being conducted. The center is home to the Eastern New Mexico Outdoor Arboretum that is open for self-guided tours. Researchers also assist the Quay County Cotton Boll Weevil Control District with its activities.
The Tucumcari center has an advisory committee composed of agricultural producers and local business representatives who provide input into the research conducted. Researchers maintain close collaborations with faculty at NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Clovis and regularly work with faculty at other NMSU locations.
“The center has a reputation for working with a diverse range of faculty and specialists from throughout the NMSU system and at other institutions in New Mexico and outside the state,” Kirksey said. “Over the years, dozens of students have conducted research for their master’s and doctoral projects at Tucumcari.”
A look ahead
Because of limited inflow to the Conchas Reservoir, water for irrigation from the Arch Hurley Conservancy District has been limited or unavailable since 2002 and growers in the area have had to adjust and adapt their production practices accordingly.
“Because we’ve been in a drought for 10 years, we had already made a shift in the research program to include non-irrigated research,” Lauriault said.
Several studies have been completed and some have been published, including dryland kenaf production and sorghum forage options for varying amounts of irrigation, including no irrigation.
Kirksey said the center is continuing to evolve and will face many new challenges as time passes in areas of production efficiency and the use of technology to improve agricultural profitability.
“Precision agriculture, mechanization of agricultural production processes and the use of portable electronic devices – such as cell phones and iPads – have changed the way we do business,” he said. “These technological advances will continue, and using these technologies to help producers be more productive and profitable will be challenging.”
The center is developing a new research focus on the use of treated wastewater for agricultural production.
The science center teamed with the city of Tucumcari in 2011 to pipe reclaimed municipal water from the city’s wastewater treatment facility to the center, giving researchers the opportunity to conduct irrigated crop evaluations and valuable irrigation studies, even in drought conditions, as well as creating the opportunity to develop research on the use of reclaimed water for agricultural production. The pipeline from the wastewater treatment facility to the science center is expected to be complete by spring, and research using that source should begin soon after the water is available.
“With the limited availability of irrigation water in the Tucumcari area – and throughout the western U.S. in general – the center must refocus its efforts on limited irrigation and rainfed agricultural production so as to improve water-use efficiency and maintain farmland productivity,” Kirksey said. “As a science center, we have an opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research in this area, while also maintaining relevance for local agricultural producers.”