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Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center Enters Growth Curve

LAS CRUCES - Under a blazing blue sky, 13 New Mexico State University students pile out of dusty white pick-up trucks onto a grassy range. There's no sign of civilization, not even a telephone pole. Research cattle putter in the distance.

New Mexico State University assistant professor of range science Laurie Abbott (foreground) gives a down-to-earth explanation of rangeland analysis to seniors James Duran, (clockwise from left), Cody Layton, Phillip Martinez and Desiree Poore at the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center. The 64,000-acre research center, located 20 miles north of Las Cruces, features a diversity of vegetation, soils and land types. (10/11/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Standing in the mid-October sunshine with a light wind gusting from the west, Laurie Abbott begins her rangeland analysis class using NMSU's sprawling outdoor research laboratory, the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center (CDRRC), as a real-world centerpiece of her discussion. Moving through the fundamentals of sampling and statistical analysis, the NMSU assistant professor of range science teaches methods of measuring vegetation cover, density, forage production and biomass utilization on the desert range.

"This is a living laboratory, a wonderful resource because it is so close to the university," Abbott said. "We can get out here in about half an hour and start learning." The 64,000-acre research center, located 20 miles north of the main campus, features a broad diversity of vegetation, soils and land types.

The research center, known to many as the College Ranch, dates back to 1927, when the U.S. Congress granted land to what was then New Mexico A&M College for research and educational purposes. Since then, additional land has been acquired and the research range now encompasses roughly 100 square miles, from the Rio Grande floodplains on the west to a portion of the Dona Ana Mountains on the east.

Scientists can draw on seven decades' worth of detailed range management information from the center, including gazing treatments and weather data. "The ranch is an excellent resource to study restoration and effects of past management practices because of the records that have been kept," Abbott said.

The three principal areas of research at the facility are livestock management, grazing management and range ecology.

Livestock research deals with beef cattle genetics and grazing management. One long-term project examines the effects of moderate versus conservative grazing levels on the sustainability of rangeland. Livestock breeding research focuses on selecting animals that are better adapted to the Chihuahuan Desert.

"Brangus cattle appear to fit this environment the best, and we are doing studies looking at sire lines, big versus moderate-sized, and early maturing versus large-growth Brangus," said Milton Thomas, a cattle geneticist with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. "We're also building our own Brangus, using crosses of Angus and Brahman to make new bloodlines." NMSU researchers want to combine Angus' excellent meat quality with Brahman's tolerance for harsh conditions.

NMSU's grazing projects focus on long-term sustainability of New Mexico's rangeland, including appropriate stocking rates and management under drought conditions. "We know that if we overgraze these rangelands they may never recover," Thomas said. "If grazing depletes the grass, then there's no seed bank to regenerate the grasses when the rains do come."

One project, underway for more than 40 years, reviews continuous versus rotational grazing systems. NMSU scientists have discovered that because of the Chihuahuan Desert's diverse mix of grass species, the animals tend to rotate themselves as different plants become more palatable during the growing season.

Meanwhile, they've found that conservative grazing levels are more favorable in a desert environment. Typically, stocking levels are related to rainfall totals, which normally average 8.5 inches annually in southern New Mexico. During the current drought cycle, total rainfall has dipped as low as 2 inches a year in some areas. "In some conservative cases, you're only looking at two or three animals per section," Thomas said. "That's all the land would support." A section is 640 acres.

Thomas stressed that the size of the research center brings numerous advantages for scientists, including control of experiments and treatments.

The CDRRC is part of NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, which has scientists working at facilities on the main campus in Las Cruces and at 12 research centers throughout the state. Off-campus agricultural science centers are located near Alcalde, Artesia, Clayton, Clovis, Corona, Farmington, Las Cruces, Los Lunas, Mora and Tucumcari.

Thomas pointed out that range ecology research involves high levels of collaboration among NMSU's academic departments, especially biology. "In any range environment, there are many factors that keep it healthy," he said. "To better understand how to manage a range, you have to take all the players into consideration."

Since 1980, more than $20 million in funding for rangeland research has come to the university from a variety of prestigious sources, including the National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research program. These large-scale studies look at the big picture, taking into account range conditions, weather, water and soil type.

"The research being conducted at the CDRRC is part of our land-grant mission as a university," Thomas added. "As the population of the world gets larger, these kinds of projects are going to provide some very valuable data to help us understand what we need to do to sustain the whole world."

A recently initiated land management policy at the research center should boost NMSU researchers' ability to acquire funding and hire more staff. In September, NMSU's Board of Regents decided to limit access to most of the center to protect its research and educational mission, leaving about 7,000 acres open for multiple uses.

Currently, 25 full-time scientific projects are underway, but that number has risen to 35 some years, depending on funding. "In the next five years, we hope to bounce up to 45 with projects being added in the areas of watersheds, hydrology, wildlife, restoration and archeology," Thomas said. "I know some people were upset about limiting access to these research lands, but in the long run I think people will be happy about the benefits that research will provide for land and resource management in southern New Mexico."