By Audry Olmsted
Heart of Crop Production
Clovis Science Center projects focus on profitability, efficiency
Agriculture is important to the lives of people throughout New Mexico. Roughly two-thirds of the state’s agricultural cash receipts ($1.6 billion) are generated from the eastern side of the state alone.
New Mexico State University’s Agricultural Science Center at Clovis, operated by the Agricultural Experiment Station, lies at the heart of the largest crop production area in New Mexico, giving its researchers the unique opportunity to study agricultural production practices for the potential to increase farm profitability and efficiently use available resources.
“The Clovis science center is centrally located in this area and is uniquely qualified to conduct agricultural research and Extension activities aimed at efficiently managing the area’s limited water resources and increasing the economic viability and sustainability of agricultural production,” said the center’s superintendent, Rex Kirksey.
The research and Cooperative Extension Service programs at the science center are guided by an advisory committee of agricultural producers and business leaders in the area. The committee provides feedback about programs at the center and provides direction and information on the needs of the area. It has also been instrumental in helping the center obtain enhancement funding from the New Mexico Legislature.
With guidance from the committee and support from local legislators, the center has obtained more than $500,000 in recurring funds and $535,000 in one-time appropriations from the Legislature since 2004.
Every year, the center hosts outreach and community activities – such as field days and presentations – to enlighten the public about projects faculty are working on and what impact those programs can have on farms, dairies and the community.
Researchers at the center help area producers implement better agricultural practices in areas ranging from irrigation techniques and crop management to harnessing the power of wind energy and ensuring the future of the dairy industry through education.
Sorghum vs. corn
Extension Agronomy Specialist Mark Marsalis continues to seek the best management practices for growing forage sorghum and corn under limited water scenarios.
“Corn is the primary and preferred crop grown for silage for dairy use in the region,” he said. “However, corn uses large quantities of water and current corn silage systems are not sustainable with the declining water resources the area is experiencing.”
Forage sorghum is more drought-tolerant and has the potential to be a water-conserving alternative to corn. Forage sorghum often yields more than corn under limited irrigation conditions, but it is often inferior to corn with respect to feed value.
Researchers are studying how to most effectively and profitably grow this crop with fewer inputs, while maintaining feed value. They also want to know whether corn will maintain its nutritive value advantage over sorghum under resource-restricted conditions.
Initial test results show that inputs of seed and fertilizers of both forage sorghum and corn can be reduced significantly from commonly used rates without negatively affecting yield and forage quality. Under various environmental conditions, forage sorghum is consistently high-yielding. Corn was shown to be affected to a greater extent by in-season rainfall than sorghum.
Potential water and cost savings from growing forage sorghum instead of corn are great, Marsalis said. Sorghum can be a greater buffer against drought disasters because it can tolerate dry spells and resume growth when conditions improve.
Best crop management systems
In a region ripe with agricultural land, water is a precious resource that must be used sparingly to increase efficiency while conserving the limited water available for irrigation. Researchers are looking at various irrigation management systems and alternative crops to obtain the most efficient use of water. They are also looking at drawing on the power of other natural resources and seeing how climate and other stresses affect crop productivity.
“Although sunlight is a free and almost unlimited resource in New Mexico,” said Sangu Angadi, crop physiologist, “if we are not using this resource for our benefit, it will be used in the form of evaporating water from the crop inter-row space early in the season, or it will be used by weeds, which in turn compete for other resources.”
Researchers are using an intercropping system of forage sorghum and various legumes to increase radiation capture and radiation-use efficiency. Angadi is looking for crops that can tolerate shade and increase productivity of the intercropping system.
In a semiarid environment, stresses, such as water, heat and wind, reduce crop productivity. Angadi is trying to understand stress responses on existing and alternative crops, which could lead to changes in management practices to reduce stress effects.
Quality Valencia peanuts
Varieties of the Valencia peanut account for nearly 90 percent of the peanuts grown in New Mexico today.
Naveen Puppala, a peanut breeder at the center, is working to provide growers in eastern New Mexico and West Texas with quality peanut cultivars that mature early, are productive with limited water resources and are tolerant of environmental stresses.
A core collection of the Valencia peanut that represents elite source material for breeders to identify new sources of genetic variations has been developed at the center. This core group has been grown under two irrigation treatments to screen for drought-tolerant material that can be used in the peanut breeding program.
The Valencia core collection is grown on a farm near Portales that has been in monocrop peanut production for the last 22 years to screen for disease resistant material that can be utilized as part of the program.
Puppala is also studying various planting patterns to see which one provides the most agronomic benefit for the Valencia peanut. He has learned that planting peanuts in a diamond pattern reduces plant-to-plant competition and also provides for earlier canopy closure, helping to keep the soil cool and moist. He theorizes that, by avoiding early season competition, seed inputs may be reduced if lower populations in the diamond pattern prove to be more productive than peanuts grown in single rows.
Future of dairy industry
The Southern Great Plains Dairy Consortium is a collaborative effort between NMSU and 11 other institutions and organizations to meet the educational, research and Extension needs of a rapidly expanding dairy industry in the Southwest.
On the teaching side, the consortium gives students across the country an opportunity to expand their dairy industry experience through hands-on training on dairies in the area from experts who are brought in from participating universities to share their knowledge on topics ranging from dairy nutrition to animal welfare.
The idea to create a dairy consortium actually was born from producers, said Robert Hagevoort, Extension dairy specialist in Clovis, after it became apparent there were very few resources or funding available to support dairies in the Southwest.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, as well as former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, have championed the quest for funding and continue to support the consortium.
NMSU collaborates with the other institutions in the consortium to leverage these funds in the areas of air emissions research, dairy water use and recycling, lifecycle analysis of milk production and an updated economic impact study.
“Everything we do within the consortium is producer driven,” Hagevoort said. “Producers tell us what their needs are so we can deliver. I believe that is the true function of research and Extension, and the mission of the land-grant university.”