By Marlena Hartz : Freedom Newspapers
Around a bend on a narrow road, pockets of sorghum, canola, sunflowers, cow peas and corn sprout from the rutted brown soil.
The crops are the research of about a dozen New Mexico State University researchers and staff. At the Agricultural Science Center north of Clovis, the group uses about 160 acres of flat land as a bed for practical studies.
Local farmers, ranchers and dairymen were shuttled into the heart of the center Wednesday for an annual field day.
“We want to give producers practical advice they can take back and use,” said the superintendent of the agricultural center, Rex Kirksey.
At any given time, there are 30 to 50 projects underway at the center, Kirksey said.
Fueled by an increase in state funding, three new researchers were added to the staff in the last year. New programs in crop stress and water management were also launched, Kirksey said.
In a field of sorghum that reached to his knees, the center’s extension agronomy specialist, Mark Marsalis, detailed his trials with silage. His audience — about 80 farmers and ranchers perched on squares of hay.
Marsalis is growing forage corn and sorghum using a third the amount of water traditionally used to grow the crops. In a season, he sprays his corn with about 20 inches of water, his sorghum with about 18. Water deprivation is much harder on corn than sorghum, his experiment shows.
“We look at that corn some days in the summer and it’s just screaming for water,” Marsalis said.
“Essentially, I want to see how feasible it would be to grow forage sorghum in place of corn,” Marsalis said.
“We realize the water is not going to always be around,” he said.
The primary source of water in the region, the Ogallala Aquifer, could run dry in about 30 to 40 years, research indicates. In the agriculture industry, the concern is monumental. Researchers at the center are compelled by it. So are regional farmers and ranchers.
“Wells are already going dry,” Marsalis said.
Research conducted at the center is a vital to the evolution of agriculture in the region, especially in light of water woes, according to Ken Walker, a field day attendee.
“Corn and alfalfa are the highest water users among crops. That is what the dairy industry depends on, so that is what we are planting, but over time that will have to change,” Walker said.
A good alternative for farmers — planting crops such as soybeans and canola for the growing biofuel industry, Walker said.
But as water issues mount, even more alternatives will be needed, he said.
“Agriculture is the life blood of our area,” Walker said.
For Walker, hope lies in those pockets of sorghum, canola, sunflowers, cow peas and corn laid out north of Clovis at the center.