Although it's only been in existence for six years, the Consortium for Alfalfa Improvement is steadily making progress in its goal to redesign alfalfa for dairy cattle.

The consortium, or CAI, is comprised of four forage industry experts utilizing their scientists to find solutions in three project areas, reported Neal Martin, director of the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center (USDFRC), at its recent Getting More From Forages conference in Madison, WI.

“We all work on one of three projects: the lignin project, the protein project or the biofuels project,” he said. “The team's goals? No. 1, reduce the amount of protein degradation in silage in the rumen. The second one is, we want to increase the availability of carbohydrates by altering or reducing lignin.”

CAI has been directed by Rick Dixon of the Noble Foundation, offering genomics and biotechnology expertise; Mark McCaslin of Forage Genetics, which works with alfalfa genetics; and Martin, who brings the resources of the USDFRC and its USDA-ARS alfalfa research unit.

“Recently we have added biofuels to the project and Dave Miller (director of alfalfa breeding) of Pioneer Hi-Bred International,” Martin said.

So far, two alfalfa lines with reduced lignin are being tested in growing and feeding trials (see “Quality-Keeping Alfalfa”). The researchers are also working to develop forages with protein that can be utilized more efficiently by cows. Up to a third of alfalfa protein is excreted by cows and farmers often have to replace alfalfa with row-crop-derived protein sources or feed protein supplements at extra costs.