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Jay A. Rodman

Christopher Pierce, a research technician in NMSU’s Alfalfa Breeding and Genetics Program, logs in harvest data while operating the program’s specially equipped forage plot harvester. The data is helping researchers develop alfalfa varieties that are more drought-tolerant in a project that combines high-tech genetic analysis with traditional plant breeding practices.

Jay A. Rodman

NMSU student researchers Alexander Pertusini, Zach Hale and Lily Timmons discuss their work with Tracey Carrillo, assistant director of campus farm operations, while standing next to a 6,000-gallon shrimp tank at NMSU’s Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center.

Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center is about more than plants

By Jay A. Rodman

New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences operates a dozen research-oriented agricultural science centers around the state, with research missions aligned with the agricultural needs of their surrounding areas.

For the Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center, six miles south of the Las Cruces campus, the mission is to serve “the needs of irrigated agriculture in south-central and southwest New Mexico.” Much effort and acreage are devoted to faculty research on alfalfa and other forage crops, chiles, cotton, onions and pecans.

Tracey Carrillo is assistant director of campus farm operations and the superintendent of both the Leyendecker and the smaller Fabian Garcia Science Center bordering the main campus. He says that with the prevalence of these crops in other parts of the state, as well as the nature of other research at the facility, Leyendecker’s impact is actually statewide.

The Centennial Field Day

The Leyendecker headquarters building is a converted farmhouse built a half-century before NMSU purchased the 203-acre family farm in 1969. A number of large, old pecan trees shade the yard, and several large metal barn units are nearby.

The headquarters and barnyard area were the center of the action at the Leyendecker Plant Science Center Centennial Field Day Aug. 25, an event that attracted more than 1,100 people from Las Cruces and beyond. The theme was “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future.” In addition to being an official New Mexico Centennial event, the field day commemorated the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act of 1862, legislation that established this country’s system of land-grant colleges and universities.

The field day included remarks and presentations by administrators, officials and historians, tours of the research plots, a walk-through display garden, and booths and demonstrations from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, various ACES departments, other NMSU colleges and a number of other organizations.

Visitors were surprised to learn that one of the center’s barns houses a laboratory with two 6,000-gallon tanks devoted to research on inland shrimp production.

Another popular stop was NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute booth, where a chile roaster was running full throttle to supply bags of freshly picked local green chiles to interested visitors.

Chiles, pecans, alfalfa, onions, cotton and more

The NMSU Chile Pepper Breeding and Genetics Program carries on a tradition that dates back to the university’s founding and work done by chile pioneer Fabian Garcia. The current program coordinates much of the chile research being done at Leyendecker and at the Fabian Garcia center.

At Leyendecker, chile cultivars are planted as row crops in research projects that seek to genetically improve their disease and pest resistance, as well as their ability to be processed mechanically. Other research focuses on varietal trials of cultivars that may offer new options to growers.

Pecan research is also a century-old NMSU tradition dating back to Fabian Garcia’s early years on the faculty, and the university now has more than 60 acres of research orchards. At Leyendecker, there are seven acres of mature trees near the headquarters and two new 10-acre orchards at the southern end of the farm.

Among other things, the orchards are involved in research on varieties, soil type, spacing, water and nutrient requirements, pruning practices and pest control.

Given the perennial scarcity of water in New Mexico, research on drought-tolerant forage crops has become increasingly important to the state’s ranching and dairy industries.

NMSU has been developing new varieties of alfalfa since 1918, but traditional plant breeding practices can now be enhanced with high-tech genetic analysis. This is exactly what is happening in the Alfalfa Breeding and Genetics Program. At Leyendecker, researchers are using a technique called DNA marker-assisted selection to identify genetic markers for drought tolerance, cross-breed them into existing varieties, and evaluate their productivity under both normal irrigation and water-deprived conditions.

Additional studies compare options for cover crops for the Desert Southwest, including sorghum-Sudan, pearl millet, buckwheat, lablab, cowpeas, sesbania and hairy vetch.

Leyendecker is one of several research sites for the Onion Breeding Program at NMSU. It has a long track record of developing high-quality cultivars that combine high yield and resistance to disease and bolting. Other NMSU colleagues are working to refine onion cultivation practices and improve pest control.

NMSU’s cotton breeding program began in 1926 and is known for the development of more than 30 cultivars of the Acala 1517 variety, which has been a staple in the Southwest for decades. Leyendecker is a main location for this research.

In addition to traditional cotton, significant field space at the center is devoted to research on gossypol-free, or “glandless,” cotton. Gossypol is a natural toxin, contained in the tissue of standard cotton plants, that helps protect them from insect pests. But gossypol also makes the meal and oil from their seeds unusable, without special processing, as food for humans and non-ruminant animals.

If successful, the glandless cotton research at Leyendecker, and also at NMSU’s Artesia Science Center, will result in cotton cultivars that can thrive in New Mexico’s relatively pest-free environment, compete in lint production with standard varieties, and produce robust seed quantity that can be processed more economically into food and feed products.

Which brings us back to the two 6,000-gallon shrimp tanks, mentioned above, involved in the development and testing of shrimp feeds based on cottonseed meal rather than traditional fish meal.

The new feed, used in a closed-loop tank system developed for this project, could enable inland shrimp cultivation that is viable on a small scale, and is accomplished in a sustainable way with little water and using feed containing primarily local ingredients. The result would be a fresh, competitively priced product for local markets.

And much more

Among other research initiatives at Leyendecker are several projects of the NMSU Weed Science Lab near the farm entrance; the local component of a multi-site test of hoop house designs; research on the microbiology of soils; the New Mexico portion of the federal IR-4 program that tests approved pesticides for additional uses; and other pesticide research related to specific commodities.

The center hosts New Mexico’s Seed Certification Program that inspects and certifies seed crops and seed; and the Noxious Weed Free Certification Program that helps prevent the spread of weeds in hay and mulch.

“One of the primary missions of Leyendecker is to serve as a focal point for New Mexico in developing research projects that will enhance the productivity of farmers throughout the state,” Carrillo said. “A lot of what we do out here has a ripple effect on the entire state’s economy.”

For more about the Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center, visit http://leyendeckersc.nmsu.edu/.