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NMSU researcher seeks innovative ways to grow crops with less water

CLOVIS - In dry areas of the world, the production of crops depends on the best use of limited water resources. Research at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Clovis is focusing on how the use of ultra-short-season crops could make the most of available water supplies.

Crop physiologist Sangu Angadi discusses his water use efficiency research during a field day last summer at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Clovis. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

"Water is the most limiting factor in crop productivity and my research focuses on improving the efficiency of using this limited water in both irrigated and rainfed conditions," said Sangu Angadi, crop physiologist at the center.

Not only must farmers deal with limited water supplies, the water also may only be available for a short period of time. That led Angadi to consider crops that originally had been developed for farmers in the northern part of the North American continent who had to contend with very short growing seasons. His goal is to identify a crop that can be grown in just 75-90 days, can be grown with very little water and will be suitable for this region.

The project is one of several that Angadi is working on in an attempt to achieve "more crop per drop."

"New Mexico is on the tail end of the Ogallala aquifer, where the cost of pumping irrigation water is increasing due to the lowering water table and higher fuel prices," Angadi said. "In this situation, an ultra-short-duration crop that grows only part of the water-demanding growing season can improve water use efficiency and conserve part of the irrigation water for more productive uses, which otherwise would have been used on a full-season crop."

Angadi has gathered 14 crops, which can be used for biofuels, human consumption or dairy markets. Some are early maturing varieties of traditional crops and others are potential crops, he said.

The biodiesel potential crops include canola, mustard (Brassica juncea), soybean and sunflower. The mustard cultivar used in the trial is a "canola-quality mustard," which is expected to be better adapted to drier and warmer conditions than canola.

"Special breeding efforts in Canada and Australia have developed these canola-quality mustards, which are similar to mustard in adaptability but oil and meal quality is improved to a canola-type standard," Angadi said. "At present, I am using only Canadian varieties and in the future I will explore the possibility of adding Australian cultivars."

The soybean plants being used are the earliest-maturing varieties available, developed in a North Dakota State University breeding program for the short growing seasons of North Dakota and Canada. In addition, these crops produce good quality oil for human consumption and the meal can be used as very good feed for dairy cattle, Angadi said.

The second group being studied includes pulse crops (certain crops that produce peas or beans), such as pigeon pea and cow pea, as well as soybeans, which are good sources of protein for human consumption and can also be used as protein sources for dairy cattle. Forage is also of high quality.

The third group under study consists of the earliest maturing varieties of traditional sorghum and corn.

The research was started during the summer of this year and will continue for two to three years, Angadi said.

"The agronomic, economic and quality analysis of the results for two to three years will identify a few crops suited to the region," Angadi said. "They will provide some alternatives to traditional crops in the region."

Another of Angadi's research projects examines the benefits of leaving stubble standing in fields after harvest to help a new crop get established, reduce wind speed and cut evaporation. He is studying the potential of growing sorghum and a legume crop in the same field to more efficiently use water, and making the most of early vigor varieties of forage crops to save water. Angadi also is working to gain a deeper understanding of root systems and the process of water extraction in rainfed and irrigated conditions on crops being considered for New Mexico.
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