Reduced-lignin alfalfa — a transgenic crop developed to offer growers harvest flexibility — could be sold and planted as early as 2016, estimates Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin Extension forage specialist.

“I think farmers should be really excited about reduced-lignin alfalfa. It will let us wait eight to 10 days longer to harvest each cutting and have the same quality of forage,” he says.

But its developer is now in the throes of petitioning deregulatory status for the genetically modified alfalfa from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The first of two comment periods closed in June with only 55 total comments — 21 requesting deregulation. After the petition and comments are analyzed and an environmental assessment is made, a second comment period will be open to the public.

“There are two ways growers can perceive utilizing the technology,” explains Matt Fanta, president of Forage Genetics International, the breeding company that developed it and filed the petition with Monsanto.

“One is they can harvest their alfalfa the way they traditionally have and get higher-quality forage (higher digestibility). Or they could actually be able to delay harvest a couple of days and get the same-quality forage and have the opportunity to obtain higher tonnage.”

The alfalfa was developed to contain less lignin than is in the conventional legume. Lignin is needed to hold plants upright, but makes alfalfa less digestible.

A reduced-lignin alfalfa grown in a traditional four-cut alfalfa region, Undersander explains, could instead be harvested three times and yield 15-20% more than would be produced in four cuts.

“The more often you cut, the more often plants have to start over, so yield is a little bit less with a frequent cutting system,” he adds. “We also think that (reduced-lignin alfalfa) stands may last a little bit longer because they’re not cut so frequently. When we cut alfalfa at the bud stage for high-quality dairy feed, we’re putting a lot of stress on that plant. We need to do that, but it does mean a shortened stand life.”

Undersander studied three- vs. four-cut alfalfa systems in earlier research. He compared six to eight conventional varieties cut three and four times by Sept. 1.

“What we found was that those we cut three times by Sept. 1 yielded 15-20% more than those that were cut four times in the same time window. Of course, with the standard varieties, the three-cut system had too low a quality for dairies, so (by cutting four times) we sacrificed yield to get the high quality needed for dairy cattle. The advantage will be, with these new varieties, that we will not have to sacrifice yield to get the quality that we want.

“So I’m pretty excited. I think this will be something every farmer will want to grow. For the dairyman because he can take fewer cuttings, get more tonnage and have higher quality. For the commercial hay grower, too, because he can take fewer cuttings and have the same high-quality hay. If we can increase our yield by 15-20%, that would actually put us up in similar dry-matter yields to corn silage.”

Fewer cuttings also mean time, labor and fuel savings, as well as less wheel-traffic damage, he says.

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The question growers ask, however, is whether this new alfalfa will lodge more because it contains less lignin. “One of the things we know about alfalfa,” Undersander points out, “is that it has more lignin than it needs. We are not removing the lignin; we are reducing the lignin by 20-30%, and that reduction still leaves enough lignin for the plant to stand well.”

Some “space-planting” studies of reduced-lignin plants and standard varieties that stand well have already been compared, the forage specialist says. Reduced-lignin alfalfa “will still lodge just like all alfalfa does. But it doesn’t appear to lodge any worse than the standard alfalfa varieties we have at this point.”

Undersander and University of California colleagues will seed the transgenic crop this fall under restricted-planting limitations, he says.

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