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NMSU studies camelina oilseed as crop, livestock feed for northeastern New Mexico

Camelina, an oilseed crop, could provide a partial solution to the suffering agricultural economy of northeastern New Mexico, according to Manny Encinias, Extension beef cattle specialist at New Mexico State University's Clayton Livestock Research Center.

Researchers harvest camelina oilseed at NMSU's Clayton Livestock Research Center. Union County businessmen asked NMSU to see if the crop could help the area economy by providing oil for a proposed biodiesel processing plant and offset feed costs of the area's beef cattle industry. (NMSU Photo)

As fuel, fertilizer, and corn prices were rising to record levels in 2008, business and community leaders in northeastern New Mexico's Union County turned to researchers at the Clayton science center to find a way to offset the impacts of these prices on their rural, agriculturally-based economy.

The county's economy is driven by the beef industry. More than half a million cattle graze the native grasslands of northeastern New Mexico. Prior to the skyrocketing oil prices in 2008, feed lots in Union County also fed 150,000 head.

While financial damage is difficult to quantify precisely, the volatility in the oil and grain commodity markets resulted in a rippling crash of the county's economy.

"Rising fuel and feed prices have cost our local economy millions of dollars since 2008," Encinias said.

"Fuel associated with transporting animals and feed are important parts of the equation," Encinias said. "When these types of components to your economic equation get out of line in our part of the world, we see the effects across the board, from our retail service industry to our schools."

Responding to the increase in price for petroleum products, Union County business leaders saw a potential local, cost-saving and economic development opportunity in establishing a biodiesel plant in their area.

Clayton is located on US Hwy. 64, a major corridor between Texas and Colorado. The area is a major thorough-fare for diesel-powered vehicles, which would enhance the viability of a local plant. The plant would also presumably provide a lower cost diesel product for local consumption.

While biodiesel can be produced from many different types of plant feedstock, the oilseed Camelina sativa surfaced as the crop of choice to evaluate. The plant, which is a member of the mustard family, produces a seed that ranks among the highest in fat content among oilseed crops.

Not only does it produce more oil, the oil is cleaner, requiring less refining, and it performs better in cold weather because it has a lower freeze or gel point. This is a beneficial property for diesel engines operating in cold temperatures.

"This property in particular has caused the U.S. Department of Defense, particularly the Air Force, to become interested in camelina oil-based biofuel as a component for jet fuel," Encinias said.

Camelina is recognized as a low input crop because it has relatively low irrigation requirements. Compared to wheat and corn, which require 25 to 30 inches of irrigation, Encinias and agronomists from the Clovis Agricultural Science Center have demonstrated that camelina raised at the Clayton Livestock Research Center can be grown with eight inches of irrigation.

"This work, which is part of a three-year study funded by the Rio Grande Basin Initiative, is a plus for raising crops like camelina in those areas like Union County where the ground water stores are rapidly depleting," Encinias said.

The plant also demonstrates a high weed and pest resistance, and is highly adaptive to dry climates, while exhibiting high tolerance for cold and frost.

Researchers at NMSU agricultural science centers in Clovis and Farmington have studied camelina oilseed in small-scale research plots. The 60-acre camelina planting in Clayton was designed to determine the feasibility of raising camelina in northeastern New Mexico, and to produce enough yield of seed and feedstock to evaluate multiple objectives of the research project.

Since one of the major objectives of the Clayton Livestock Research Center is beef cattle nutrition research, Encinias' personal research interest in the camelina study is focused on evaluating the feeding value of byproducts of the oil extraction and biodiesel processes for range and feedlot cattle.

"Camelina meal is a high-protein, high-fat feedstuff that can be used in range beef cattle supplements, "Encinias said. "And the glyercin produced during the biodiesel process can replace corn in high-energy diets fed to cattle in the feedlot."

As camelina seed is planted in late winter 2011, Encinias and his coworkers at the Clayton Livestock Research Center will focus their efforts on understanding the levels that the camelina meal and glycerin can be included in beef cattle diets.

Early indications from the Clayton research are that raising camelina in northeastern New Mexico could be a win-win situation that could help the agricultural industry and economy of the area in many ways.

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