When Arvid Boe started breeding for pure varieties of yellow-flowered falcata alfalfa 10 years ago, he hoped to develop a high-yielding, one-cut variety for the western Dakotas.

Today, his most promising experimental population, SD201, is close to meeting that goal. And in a surprising twist, SD201 and other new falcata populations have also performed well under two-cut systems in Michigan State University trials.

“It has adaptation to the Great Lakes area, which is wonderful,” says Boe, South Dakota State University forage breeder. “I hesitate to say it will work in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but it may if just two cuttings are taken.”

Falcata was introduced to South Dakota's rangelands in the early 1900s by a USDA scientist who traveled to Siberia to collect seed. Descendants from that original material, which has undergone decades of natural selection, exist today. Seed is available from Wind River Seed, Manderson, WY.

“Those plants are largely falcata-based, but there has been some hybridization with other alfalfas over the years. So they're not true falcata plants vs. the new plant populations that are being selected for and tested today,” says Boe.

Falcata resembles purple-flowered sativa alfalfa, except that it has finer stems and smaller leaflets. It's been used over the years as a good source of genes for drought tolerance and winterhardiness in purple-flowered varieties, he says.

Michigan State doctoral candidate Timothy Dietz, whose area of study is falcata, and extension forage specialist Rich Leep are the first to evaluate the crop's yield and quality.

In the first production year of their multi-location trials, falcata yielded 6.2 tons/acre under two cuttings, while sativa averaged 5.4 tons/acre under three cuttings. In the second year of production, there was no yield difference under the same comparison.

“Getting the same yield result with less fuel and labor is attractive to many growers,” says Dietz, who adds that feed values for falcata harvested in a delayed-cut system are comparable to sativa harvested at mid-bloom. “And the first cutting of falcata doesn't have to be taken until mid-June, when the weather's warmer and hay cures more rapidly.”

While falcata can't beat sativa for dairy-quality hay production, it may be ideal for growers raising hay for livestock on maintenance diets.

“Or if dairy producers have fields they're unable to harvest in late May, they could establish falcata on a portion of their acreage and harvest it later in the season as hay for dry cows and heifers,” says Dietz.

Falcata works well in pasture mixes with timothy, smooth bromegrass and meadow bromegrass if it's not grazed too frequently, he adds. It also appears resistant to potato leafhoppers and alfalfa weevils.

“But it has less seedling vigor than sativa, so it's slower to emerge, which may result in increased weed-control costs,” adds Dietz.

In the Northern Plains, falcata shows tremendous potential as a crop for stockpiling and provides excellent pheasant habitat, says Boe.

“If we cut our alfalfa in early to mid-June, we destroy a lot of pheasant nests by killing the hens and destroying the eggs,” he says. “Falcata can be stockpiled until mid-July when the young pheasants are able to outrun the mowers.”

Commercial varieties of pure falcata will likely be available within three to five years.