Despite alfalfa’s declining acreage and use in many dairy rations, alfalfa breeders are excited about the legume’s future.

The past two years, two companies have been putting considerable effort into building up their proprietary alfalfa portfolios.

S&W Seed has garnered acquisitions that now make it the largest non-dormant alfalfa breeder in the world. In an effort to expand markets globally, the company has gained permission to plant trial plots of five varieties in China – a country with growing demand for dairy products.

Dow AgroSciences, with two retail brands in the market – Dairyland and Mycogen – acquired Cal West and added a third brand, Producer’s Choice, to its portfolio in 2012. Dow combined all of the companies’ alfalfa research and development teams and seed production operations into a new seed affiliate called Alforex Seeds.

The two other major alfalfa breeders, Forage Genetics International (FGI) and DuPont Pioneer, have  collaborated on some research.

They, with the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center and the Noble Foundation, are part of the decade-old Consortium For Alfalfa Improvement. Its mission: “to come up with new technological tools, such as novel transgenic traits, to help improve efficiency of fiber and protein use by high-producing dairy cows,” says Mark McCaslin, FGI vice president of research.

“When you talk about the future of alfalfa, I’m extremely excited about reduced lignin in the short term and improved protein utilization in the longer term. These traits will be game changers,” he says.

Reduced lignin alfalfa, now going through government deregulation and likely to be commercially available in 2016, looks to be the consortium’s first success to reach growers.

The genetically modified crop can be harvested at later-than-normal maturity while producing increased digestibility. That could translate to fewer harvests, more tonnage and lower harvest costs, say McCaslin and Robin Newell, DuPont Pioneer senior business manager for forages.

The consortium has also worked on ways to improve the efficiency of alfalfa protein utilization by dairy cows. Recently published research from New Zealand, replicated in FGI’s labs, shows that alfalfa can be modified to produce condensed tannins in leaves and stems. Condensed tannins bind with forage/feed proteins, which slows the rate of protein degradation in the rumen and increases bypass protein.

 “The U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center predicted that tannins in alfalfa would reduce the amount of protein supplement required for high-producing dairy cows by 75%. That’s the largest feed cost for dairy producers who produce their own grain and forage,” McCaslin says.

Because much of the nitrogen could be utilized rather than excreted through urine, as it is now, high-tannin alfalfa could also cut nitrogen losses on farms, he says.

DuPont Pioneer has made heavy breeding efforts to improve lodging resistance of alfalfa. “Lodging in the heavy first cut of alfalfa can often trim ¼-½ ton of yield per acre, as well as leave longer stems in the field that can detract from forage quality in the second or following cuttings,” Newell says.

“Slow but steady improvements have been made, to the point where Pioneer lodging-resistant germplasm is making its way into some of the highest-yielding clonal plant selections in the background of many new potential Pioneer varieties.”

The alfalfa market, says Mark Grewal, S&W Seed’s president and CEO, is going to be larger worldwide because Third-World countries want a Westernized diet that includes protein. The real population growth is outside of the U.S. – South Africa, Asia, the Middle East and into the Ukraine.

“If you take Egypt alone, within 10 years it will be half the population of the U.S. And they don’t want goat milk. They don’t want powdered milk. They want real milk, cheese, meat and yogurt. All these things bode well for alfalfa, because regardless of what anybody says, you can’t substitute it. Alfalfa is irreplaceable.”

U.S. exports of hay bales alone have grown to $1.3 billion/year, he says. It’s often cheaper to ship hay into countries like China that don’t have good transportation infrastructures.

But alfalfa will be more than an animal feed, Grewal says. “It’s going to be a biofuel. Alfalfa’s going to create breeding places for wildlife. But alfalfa’s main contribution to agronomics isn’t any of those things; it’s its ability to reclaim soils.” His company is breeding varieties with salt and drought tolerance and has even moved into breeding tropical alfalfas that can grown in high-water-table areas like Vietnam.

“Our main emphasis is on continued improvement in tough soils to get high yields just like you would on regular soils,” he says.

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Moving into the alfalfa seed market with Alforex allows Dow AgroSciences to provide producers with a “complete package,” says Bill Root, its global business leader for forage crops.

The seed affiliate, with Dow’s corn brand and a partnership with Barenbrug USA, a grass seed company, gives farmers a “total solution. They can’t feed a cow only alfalfa. They’ve got to have energy from corn; they’ve got to have fiber from grasses and protein from alfalfa.”

North America is a key market for the company, making up 70% of its sales, but Alforex will also focus globally.

“If you look at Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, they’re key targets for Alforex. There are some very large markets that require high-quality and high-yielding alfalfa. They want better nutrition. They want varieties that address individual needs, like salt tolerance, or have the ability to withstand very harsh conditions,” Root says.

Alforex plans to breed for improved agronomics, salt and drought tolerance, standability and fast regrowth. It has focused its breeding efforts on four key market segments in North America as well as those outside the U.S. “We’re trying to tailor our breeding program to have improved germplasm for each of those areas.”

Read more from Hay & Forage Grower:

Water Woes Hamper California Hay, Beef Sectors

Farmer Offers Buyers, Seller 'Hay Depot' Option

USDA Considers Alfalfa Crop Insurance Improvements