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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Research Helping Farmers Plan Future of Erosion-prone Land

LAS CRUCES -- In parched eastern New Mexico, fields planted in perennial grasses looked better than the wheat this spring. The flat stretches of yellowed grass were among the state's 400,000 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal effort to fight erosion on highly erodible land.

Although the CRP land wasn't lush, it was a welcome sight, thanks to the absence of blowing sand. In neighboring fields, rippled dunes accumulated along the fences, next to withered stands of stunted wheat and plowed-under fields with dirt clods the size of a bushel basket.

"As you traveled the eastern side of the state, you could look from one field to the next and see the dirt crossing the road where wheat fields were blowing," says Rex Kirksey, superintendent of New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari. "Then you'd come to a stretch of CRP land and you could definitely see that the same situation wasn't happening. In terms of wind erosion in particular, there have been some major advantages, especially this past winter."

In all, about one-third of the cropland in eastern New Mexico was enrolled in CRP, starting in 1985. Farmers removed the land from production for 10 years and planted it in grasses in exchange for annual payments. As those contracts expire, most producers are taking advantage of one-year extensions. Although the recent farm bill authorized CRP for an additional seven years, future terms and payment levels aren't certain at this point.

"If people have the option of keeping their contracts in at the same rate, we expect they'll do that," Kirksey says. "If the rate goes down, I think we'll see some producers withdrawing their land and converting it back to crop production or using the grasses for livestock grazing."

To help producers assess their alternatives, NMSU scientists are carrying out research on actual CRP land in Harding, Union, Quay, Curry, Roosevelt and Lea counties, a six-county region with one of the highest concentrations of enrollment nationwide. The project is funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education program.

Already, the project has generated valuable information. For example, many producers initially had serious doubts that weeping lovegrass, the species planted on half the CRP land in the region, would provide good forage. However, six-month grazing trials with yearling heifers and steers showed otherwise.

"On a weight-gain per acre basis, we're approaching 200 pounds of animal gain per acre on our better trials," says Gary Donart, an NMSU range scientist supervising tests of five different grazing systems.

The best results came on fertilized grasses that were stocked at twice the usual rate in spring with a month's rest in summer and grazed again in the fall at a reduced stocking rate, Donart says.

In addition, the project has tested a number of combinations of crops and tillage. Before planting grain sorghum and wheat, some grasses were broken out with a traditional moldboard plow and some were disked in a minimum-till approach. In no-till treatments, seed was planted directly into stubble after grasses were treated with herbicide. Results have been mixed, but researchers are gaining valuable experience.

"We expect the primary goal the first year out of CRP will be getting rid of the perennial grass, which probably means conventional tillage because of the expense of using herbicides," says Darrell Baker, agronomist at NMSU's Clovis Agricultural Science Center. "And then following that, you could probably go back to the no-till system, which has other advantages, including minimizing erosion."

Other researchers are doing economic analyses of the options and studying ways to preserve CRP gains in wildlife habitat, particularly for birds.

Scientists recently published a summary of their findings over the first two years of the project. They plan a field day to show producers more results. Once the last year of work is complete, they'll publish a set of operational recommendations for producers.

"CRP has major economic and environmental implications for this area," Kirksey says. "We hope to give producers the information they need to make smart decisions."