An old tradition is the inspiration for a new custom that is helping researchers at New Mexico State University study the state's No.1 cash crop.

"Starting in the 1950s, Las Crucens used to present the first bale of cotton and the first bale of hay at a ceremony downtown to show the agricultural community what was coming out of the fields in Dona Ana County. We thought we could wrap that up into "Give a Bale for Billy" and actually do the first cut for the first bale of hay out of the Dona Ana County fields to promote hay and alfalfa, and research," said Terra V. Winter, development director with NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

The college recently celebrated its first "Give a Bale for Billy" after it reached a milestone of raising $250,000 towards the Billy and Lois Melton Professorship.

The Billy and Lois Melton Endowed Professorship was established at NMSU to provide critical funding for faculty researchers who are actively engaged in plant breeding, genetics, and alfalfa studies. Billy A. Melton realized the need for drought-tolerance research when he joined the faculty at NMSU in 1958. He is credited with developing the first alfalfa variety that thrived under New Mexico's scant rainfall. His genetic material has been incorporated into seed company breeding lines throughout the United States.

Lois Melton said she was inspired to create the professorship after attending a meeting of the New Mexico Hay Association with Richard Pratt, department head of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

"Many people, including me, do not realize how important hay is to the economic picture in New Mexico. It is the No. 1 cash crop in New Mexico, which many people do not realize," she said. "Water is in such limited supply. Without water, we have nothing. We realized how important alfalfa is to the human food chain and we decided that something needed to be done."

Ian Ray, a professor in plant and environmental sciences, is doing just that by continuing Billy Melton's research through the development of drought-tolerant alfalfa.

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"With the limitations of surface water availability for irrigation and underground aquifers, alfalfa acreage in New Mexico is declining, simply because there is not enough water," he said. "Hay prices have skyrocketed nationwide because other crops previously used for animal feed—corn is one example—are now being diverted for ethanol production and things like that. So, alfalfa is becoming even more important."

Ray said they have developed a variety currently being commercialized. That cultivar is New Mexico Melton. The seed production is being increased in California. He estimates it should be commercially available in 2014.

Ray and one of Melton's former graduate students, Cliff Courier, are donating their proceeds as developers of the crop back to the professorship.

"When I retire, I would like to see the professorship at a level to help sustain and develop whoever is going to take my place so they can continue working on understanding how plants respond to drought and how we can develop crops that remain productive, essentially during drought stress," he said.

"It's wonderful because the funding we get will help this essential project," Lois Melton said.

Ray said Lois Melton has been the driving force behind this professorship.

"Bill Melton was an awesome alfalfa geneticist and breeder,” he said. "He trained a tremendous number of individuals who were very successful in the private industry. Not just New Mexico agriculture but U.S. agriculture has really benefited from his oversight."

Winter said that with "Give a Bale for Billy," the college is asking people to donate to the endowment whatever is the current cost for hay in New Mexico on that given day—$18 for a small bale, $150 for a large bale, or $300 for a one-ton bale.

The endowment started in 2006. Reaching the quarter-million dollar mark has supporters thinking big for its growth in the future.

"Hopefully, we'll reach $1 million," Lois Melton said. "You might as well reach big!"

 

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