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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Field Day To Help Farmers Make Choices About Land In Conservation Reserve Program

CLOVIS -- In the next year, High Plains farmers will decide the future of hundreds of thousands of acres of land idled under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Nearly one in three acres of cropland in eastern New Mexico has been planted in grasses for 10 years in exchange for government payments.

As contracts expire, producers have a staggering number of questions to answer: If CRP is extended at lower payment rates, should they stay with it? Can they graze cattle on CRP grasses, or should they go back to growing wheat or sorghum? What about conservation tillage to slow soil erosion? Is managing land for wildlife habitat a better choice?

On Oct. 12, farmers can take a firsthand look at their options at a field day hosted by New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Clovis. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NMSU scientists from Clovis, Tucumcari and Las Cruces have studied grazing and cropping on CRP land, as well as economics, environmental impacts and government policy.

Joe Whitehead with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) is studying techniques to develop shelter, food and water sources for wildlife.

"Our goal is to provide information producers can use to make wise decisions about the future of CRP land," said Rex Kirksey, project director and superintendent of the Tucumcari Agricultural Science Center.

For example, many producers are thinking of grazing cattle on CRP grasslands. However, little is known about how to use weeping lovegrass, the species seeded on about half the CRP land in eastern New Mexico and West Texas.

At the field day, participants can see the results of five different grazing trials with lovegrass. Gary Donart, a range scientist with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, is studying yearlong continuous grazing to simulate cow-calf operations. The other options involve grazing for six months, either continuously, while rotating cattle among pastures, or by stocking at twice the usual rate in spring with a summer rest, both with and without fertilizing.

"So far, we're finding that weeping lovegrass is very effective as a grass species for livestock in the spring, with gains approximating three to three-and-a-half pounds," Donart said. "They've dropped off to around two pounds a day as the summer progresses. Our heavy spring and then fall grazing with fertilizer is probably our best overall program."

Farmers interested in growing crops again on CRP land may be able to avoid costly mistakes by attending the field day.

Clovis scientists have tried many combinations of crops and tillage systems. They've used conventional tillage in which grasses are broken out with a moldboard plow and disked, minimum tillage where ground is disked several times, and no-till methods that control grasses with herbicides and seed directly into residue.

"At the same time, we're looking at continuous wheat and sorghum with each of those tillage systems and then some combinations of wheat, sorghum and fallow," said Brent Rouppet, Clovis Agricultural Science Center superintendent.

Two companion studies are testing soil fertility treatments for sorghum on CRP land and measuring how much nitrogen from decomposing grasses is available before wheat planting, Rouppet said.

Of course, producers need to know the bottom line for each of their options.

To help, NMSU economists have created a model so that farmers can compare costs and returns for different land uses. The model will also allow farmers to evaluate any future CRP programs at lower payment rates, said Jim Libbin, agricultural economist with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.

"Our whole goal is to have something that's easy to use so that farmers can plug in their own information and find out what they need to know to make a decision," Libbin said.

In addition, the model assesses some environmental impacts of land management.

"Primarily we're looking at soil loss, but we're also taking into account water quality characteristics, pesticide residues and those kinds of issues," Libbin said. "It's all part of trying to evaluate what's in the best interest of the farmer, as well as what's in the best interest of the entire society."

During the field day, participants can tour research sites and talk with scientists about their research. Activities will begin at 8 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 12 at the Clovis Agricultural Science Center 13 miles north of town. A catered barbecue lunch will be served at noon. All activities are free and open to the public. For more information, call (505) 985-2292.