Roundup Ready alfalfa will debut in mid-2005 if the U.S. governmental regulatory process continues to go smoothly.

That's according to Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International, Prior Lake, MN. Speaking at the recent National Alfalfa Symposium in San Diego, CA, McCaslin estimated the initial seed release at about 1 million pounds. Roundup Ready varieties with fall dormancy ratings of 3 to 8 will be available the first year, he added.

When asked about seed prices, McCaslin responded, “The goal is that Roundup Ready alfalfa will be priced to be a good value for growers who want to adopt the technology. That is the model that has been used with other Roundup Ready crops.”

He pointed out that specific prices can't be discussed until the technology is approved. But as is the case with other biotech crops, McCaslin speculated that Roundup Ready alfalfa seed will be priced differently in various regions of the country.

Although there are current concerns about export market interruptions to Korea, Taiwan and Japan, the technology will probably be most popular in the West. That's because those growers use more herbicides than growers in other regions, said Tim Woodward, Washington State University extension agent at Pasco, WA.

California grower Jim Kuhn's decision on whether to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa will come down to economics and customer demand. He's a seed grower, plus he grows alfalfa hay for foreign and domestic markets and feeds some in his own dairy operation near El Centro.

“Whether or not I choose to use Roundup Ready alfalfa is going to come down to the cost,” said Kuhn. “I believe strongly that the best weed control is a strong stand, and I believe in trying to do everything that I possibly can to get that stand. But we have to ask whether or not it will make sense to have another segment of our operation that will require the time, close management and necessary organization to justify the cost associated with it.”

Because many of his hay customers are already feeding Roundup Ready crops to livestock, Kuhn doesn't expect much resistance to Roundup Ready alfalfa.

“On the domestic dairy side, I have never been confronted by anybody who has asked me about whether or not we are going to use Roundup Ready alfalfa with any kind of alarm. So I really don't see it as being an issue,” he stated.

Kuhn's Japanese hay customers haven't expressed much concern about Roundup Ready alfalfa to date. But Jeff Plourd of El Toro Exports, El Centro, seemed more concerned.

“Some of the trading companies we work with in Japan have differences of opinion on whether Roundup Ready alfalfa will be accepted or not,” said Plourd. “Once Japan's governmental agencies sign off on allowing Roundup Ready alfalfa into Japan, products can flow freely into the country. The next situation for us would be whether our customers are going to accept that technology.”

Plourd said non-Roundup Ready hay may someday command premium prices.

“I think, as Roundup Ready alfalfa gets introduced, we in the export market are going to see an increased emphasis on identity-preserved storage and shipping requirements because some of the trading companies and dairy farmers are not going to want that trait. As more of the product gets into the marketplace, we will start to see a difference in cost. If somebody will pay more for something that is non-genetically modified, that will tell the story.”

Woodward said Japan's Ministry for Health and Welfare is currently evaluating Roundup Ready alfalfa submitted by Monsanto. Since a number of other herbicide-resistant crops are allowed into that country, he expects Roundup Ready alfalfa to be approved, too.

Monsanto licensed Roundup Ready technology for alfalfa to Forage Genetics, which in turn licenses it to other seed companies for development of Roundup Ready varieties. In other Roundup Ready crops, the trait was incorporated into existing varieties, McCaslin pointed out. Roundup Ready alfalfa development, however, followed a forward-breeding process. This means that new varieties — not existing ones — will carry the technology.

“Whether we are a grower, seed producer, seed company or hay marketer, we are all stakeholders in the alfalfa industry,” said McCaslin. “We are competing pretty aggressively with other crops such as corn silage as a forage, soybeans as a source of protein and animal feeds. There are other crops that are moving forward with biotech traits and I think biotech traits are part of what is going to keep alfalfa competitive as a crop.

“The challenge from an industry standpoint, and as an industry obligation, is to address how we introduce biotech traits in a way that does not interrupt current markets,” he added.