The Roundup Ready trait is a potential weed management tool for Midwestern alfalfa growers, but other potential products of genetic engineering may have a greater impact on the crop’s profitability. That was the main message delivered by Craig Sheaffer, University of Minnesota forage agronomist, at last week’s Midwest Forage Association annual symposium in Wisconsin Dells, WI.

Speaking as part of a panel on Roundup Ready alfalfa, Sheaffer said new traits are needed to make alfalfa more competitive with corn and soybeans. He pointed out that Minnesota’s alfalfa acreage has dropped by a third since 1990, while corn and soybean acreage has increased. Alfalfa is used mostly for cattle feed, but dairy numbers have declined. Compared to the other two crops, which are raw materials for a diversity of products, alternative uses for alfalfa haven’t been developed. Unfortunately, its significant environmental benefits, like reducing soil erosion, improving water quality and sequestering carbon and nitrogen, are undervalued, he said.

“I’m really concerned about the future of alfalfa,” said Sheaffer. “We have a great environmental crop that can improve the sustainability of agriculture if used in crop rotations, but I think it may very well become a minor crop here in the next 10 years.”

In a four-year study, he applied Roundup herbicide to Roundup Ready alfalfa in the seeding year and compared the results with those of conventional varieties treated with another herbicide. Forage yield and quality were similar in the first year and over the life of the stands. But costs were $18/acre higher for the Roundup Ready system because of Monsanto’s technology fee.

“Although Roundup Ready technology gives producers flexibility to control a diversity of weeds, I really think a farmer in the Midwest who has a good rotation with alfalfa, corn and soybeans, and has his weed population under control, may not need it,” said Sheaffer. “He may not need any herbicide.”

However, Sheaffer worries that other genetically engineered traits that could increase alfalfa’s value and use may be delayed if Roundup Ready alfalfa doesn’t clear legal hurdles. “Without genetic engineering, will we lose alfalfa from our landscapes?” Sheaffer asked. He suggested that the crop’s many ecosystem benefits should be weighed against the risks associated with genetic engineering as part of the Roundup Ready alfalfa debate. He emphasized, however, that if Roundup Ready alfalfa is approved, guidelines and oversight must be developed that will protect farmers’ rights to grow non-genetically engineered forage or seed.