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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU-USDA Research Leads to Commercial Release of Two Native Grasses

LOS LUNAS - Two drought-resistant, native grasses may soon be widely used for reclamation and revegetation of rangeland, mining sites and fire-damaged zones throughout the Southwest, thanks to research at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas.

Field staff with the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service recognized the grasses' potential several years ago. "They picked native stands from a number of areas in the Southwest for us to study," said Ramona Garner, an agronomist at the PMC. "As a result, we've developed new composites of both grasses, and those composites are now available for public use."

Cane bluestem is particularly good for revegetation of rangeland and irrigated pastures, said Mike English, superintendent of the Los Lunas center. "The livestock really love it. It seems to be almost like candy for the cattle."

The drought-resistant grass, which is high in protein, provides appealing forage for wildlife as well, Garner said.

Cane bluestem also provides erosion control, especially in windbreaks, because the plant grows up to six feet tall, Garner said. It may appeal to urban growers because of its low water requirements and attractive appearance.

Cane bluestem grows naturally in the Southwest and northern Mexico. The center originally received 21 seed samples from native stands in New Mexico and Arizona.

In 1993, scientists transplanted seedlings to a plot at the center. After the plants matured, researchers selected seed from those that appeared to have superior forage and more seed. Six selected batches of seed were replanted to compare quality.

"We found that the six accessions were in fact better quality than most of the original 21 samples," Garner said. "We then meshed those six into one and called it Grant germplasm, since most came from native stands picked in Grant County. We planted a new field with Grant germplasm in 1998 and then harvested seed from that plot, and that's what we're now releasing to wholesale producers."

Bottlebrush squirreltail, the second grass released, is primarily considered a conservation grass because of its ability to resist fire and compete with exotic weedy annual grasses.

"It's perfect for reseeding in Cerro Grande and other fire-damaged areas," Garner said. "It grows fast, it germinates and grows roots at temperatures as low as 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and it doesn't burn very fast, so it can last in a fire. In fact, we accelerated its release this year because of the recent devastating fires."

The grass is self-pollinating, allowing it to produce seed despite sparse initial populations, Garner said.

Bottlebrush squirreltail grows naturally in the western U.S., western Canada and parts of Mexico. The center received 131 seed samples from native stands in New Mexico. In the early 1990s, researchers made a new composite from eight accessions selected for vigor, late flowering and seed yield, Garner said.

Cane bluestem and bottlebrush squirreltail seed have already been delivered to certified wholesale growers through the New Mexico Crop Improvement Association.

One recipient, native seed producer Blake Curtis of Clovis-based Curtis & Curtis Seed Inc., said he planted 30 acres of each grass this spring.

"We see great potential for both of these products," he said.