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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Scientists Study Best Uses for Former CRP Land

LAS CRUCES--Farming on the plains of eastern New Mexico has always been a tough way to make a living, even before the Conservation Reserve Program and other price support programs began to disappear.

In a recent study, scientists with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station found that neither reverting to dry land farming nor grazing yearling stocker cattle will produce acceptable economic returns on grasslands coming out of the CRP.

Funded in part by the Western Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, the research was conducted on test plots form 1994 to 1996. The project was coordinated by Rex Kirksey, superintendent of the Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari.

"It doesn't appear to be very economical to graze stockers or to raise wheat," said Allen Torell, an NMSU agricultural economist with the project. "Producers will need another option."

Authorized by the Farm Security Act of 1985, the CRP is a voluntary, long-termed cropland retirement program developed to conserve land prone to soil erosion.

"Obviously, a lot of the cropping areas in eastern New Mexico qualified to participate in the CRP," Torell said. "Many ranchers and farmers, especially the dry land farmers in Curry and Quay counties, realized that their highest returns were going to be in the CRP."

Under CRP contracts, nearly 1 million acres of land were planted in weeping lovegrass in New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle in the 1980s.

CRP acreage was originally planted in the nonnative grass, because it was cheap and easy to establish and provided good soil stability, Kirksey said.

But as the 10-year CRP contracts came up for reevaluation, there was a new emphasis in lands that could sustain wildlife habitats, not a strength in the lands planted in weeping lovegrass. "It works well for erosion control, but it lacks the species diversity and nutritional quality of other grasses," Kirksey said.

Thus, much of the land did not qualify to be renewed in the CRP. That's why NMSU researchers have been studying other options.

"As the land comes out of the CRP, farmers can obviously go back into the crop production they had o begin with," Torell said. "That would mean plowing out the weeping lovegrass stands and pastures and reseeding them into crops."

The researchers studied this option. Farm trials tested different crop combinations and tillage systems. With typical crop production and no government price support programs, research results show that returns would have been negative for most years in the test period, Kirksey said.

"When we did the cropping research, there were some severe drought conditions, but i think those conditions highlight what these farmers face every year in eastern New Mexico," Torell said.

Research trials also considered five different grazing management strategies: 12-month continuous grazing, six-month continuous grazing, spring/fall grazing, spring/fall grazing with fertilizer application, and a six-pasture rotation scheme.

Results showed that returns are minimal for grazing stocker cattle in the weeping lovegrass.

"The primary problem is that the weeping lovegrass is not a very good forage crop," Torell said. "It's quality deteriorates over the summer, and cattle begin to gain less weight on it."

The researchers will continue to look for other alternatives. One solution may be to let the land to revert to native rangeland. "The former cropland will probably be very productive rangeland and very good for a cow/calf or yearling ranching operation," Torell said.