With the right leadership, funding and research behind it, alfalfa could, in the next decade, be more than what it appears to be becoming – a lightweight competitor to corn silage in livestock rations.

A couple of years from now, a reduced-lignin alfalfa with increased fiber digestibility and a wider harvest window will likely be introduced into the marketplace, say alfalfa seed industry representatives and USDA researchers.

Down the road, the leaves and stems of the perennial legume may be harvested separately – providing high-quality protein and fiber not as one product, but as two. Further into the future, the crop could be bred to produce more bypass protein and save on supplemental feed costs, they add.

Right now, alfalfa fixes nitrogen that can be utilized by the crops that follow it, provides soil erosion benefits and is a high-protein livestock feed. Market prices for the crop have topped $300/ton or more around the country.

But more growers are plowing up alfalfa stands, replacing them with corn, soybeans or some other higher-value – or higher-yielding – crops.

A total of 2.38 million acres of alfalfa and alfalfa mixes were seeded in the U.S. in 2012. That was a 3% increase over the acreage sown in 2011, but the first increase in seeded acreage since 2005, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). It was also the second smallest amount ever seeded. Harvested acres of alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures increased slightly in 2013, to 17.6 million acres, from 17.3 million in 2012.

Historically, alfalfa acres have declined steadily. Since the late 1950s and early 1960s, when acres harvested were at their highs of 26 million to 29 million acres, they’ve gradually shrunk to 21 million acres in 2009 to 19.9 million in 2010 and 19.2 million in 2011.

Corn silage acres in Western states, in comparison, have increased eightfold since 1919 and have doubled since 1992. So says University of Arizona Extension agronomist Mike Ottman, quoting NASS numbers.

That corn silage increase corresponds with an increase in milk production and a decrease in hay and haylage use, added Ottman during a Western Alfalfa & Forage Symposium presentation in mid-December. “There is little doubt that alfalfa hay production in the Western states has not kept pace with the rapid expansion of dairy production in Western states – the difference being made up mostly by corn and small grain silage, and by grain and other concentrate feeds.”

The so-called “Queen of Forages” could be losing its crown. The reason, says Dean Doornink, is its lack of improvement in yield.

Doornink is a “money-conscious farmer” feeding 1,700 milk cows and 1,300 youngstock on 1,600 acres outside of Baldwin, WI.

“On that limited land base, we have to grow as much as we possibly can. Corn silage in our area is getting yields of about 20 tons/acre at 65% moisture and that works out to be 7 tons of dry matter per acre. Our harvest costs run around $6.50/ton,” he points out, because the crop is custom-harvested.

“Then I look at alfalfa for haylage. If we have a real good year, we have 4.5 tons/acre. We harvest four times and our harvest costs are running $50/ton of dry matter.”

His cows’ diets had been running 60% corn silage and 40% haylage as the forage portion of his 50:50 grains vs. forage diets. But, in late November, he started feeding Shredlage, silage corn shredded at a long particle length to provide more effective fiber in the ration. “Our nutritionist plans to go 80% corn silage and 20% haylage. I have heard some of the very early adopters are going to 100% corn silage.

“There needs to be more known about Shredlage,” Doornink admits. “But if it becomes adopted by a lot of dairymen, I suspect that the alfalfa needed in the dairy ration will be decreased.

“If you have enough land and alfalfa is $300/ton and corn silage $50/ton … maybe the economics will dictate that more alfalfa acres will be grown. But for our situation, with limited land base, we need to grow as many tons of dry matter as we possibly can. We are not getting it out of alfalfa.”

Doornink contends that breeding efforts in alfalfa haven’t kept up with those in corn. Ron Hatfield, a USDA plant physiologist with the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, agrees.

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“Corn yields have been going up steadily for the last 20 years. Sometimes, genetics improved the production levels. But it’s interesting, too, that as we changed the management of corn, we’ve also selected for corn that can tolerate higher-density populations.”

According to NASS data, the national average corn grain yield has increased from 26 bu/acre in 1939 to 165 bu/acre today.

Alfalfa yields, from 1920 to 1959, averaged 2.1 tons/acre vs. a 3-ton/acre average from 1960 to 1990. In the last 12 years, alfalfa yields averaged 3.4 tons/acre, according to NASS, although growers and forage specialists will say those numbers are low. University of California data indicate a Western alfalfa yield average close to 5 tons/acre. One breeding company representative says 9-10 tons/acre from seven to nine cuttings is today’s “norm” for irrigated alfalfa in Western states.

A USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) report contends there is a two- to threefold yield gap between what “average” producers report to NASS and the Census of Agriculture and what is achievable. Growers likely don’t know how much crop they produce, says Michael Russelle, a research soil scientist with ARS and author of The Alfalfa Yield Gap: A Review of the Evidence.

It’s only fair to point out that corn, as a diploid composed of two sets of chromosomes, is less complicated to breed than alfalfa, a tetraploid containing four chromosomes, says Hatfield.

“But there is no doubt that we can improve the genetic potential of alfalfa; there is good evidence that suggests we could select for higher yields. At the same time, higher yields have also depended upon how well you manage that alfalfa.”

Early alfalfa breeding efforts concentrated on forage quality, Hatfield says. ”To get that highest quality, you just cut the alfalfa more frequently. So a lot of effort’s been put into selecting for alfalfa that could tolerate frequent cuttings.

“I think those two things (yield and quality) could have gone hand in hand, but for some reason, people were so fixated on the quality side that that became the overriding selection criterion.”

That doesn’t mean alfalfa yields haven’t improved, say Hatfield and breeding company representatives.

Improved pest resistance in alfalfa varieties has increased yield by preventing crop damage or death, says Hatfield. And Roundup Ready alfalfa has been showing higher yields in the establishment year, points out Robin Newell, DuPont Pioneer senior business manager for forages and current chair of the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance.

Producers are finding that alfalfa hay isn’t the only means to provide their cows with the physically effective fiber they need, as Doornink’s use of Shredlage shows. And they’re obtaining another benefit of alfalfa – protein – from commodity sources such as distillers grains.

But feed substitutes that reduce the use of alfalfa in dairy diets lead to fewer alfalfa acres, says Newell. “At the farm level, this can mean a partial loss of alfalfa’s land stewardship role as a perennial crop as well as its value in crop rotations.

“There’s no crop that gives you more protein per acre than alfalfa,” he adds. “But it has to be harvested typically four times a year in the Upper Midwest to get good dairy-quality hay. That spreads your risk across several harvests, creates more trips across the field, more time, labor and maybe more variation in feed.”

The practice of buying protein sources and having to harvest only one crop of corn silage provides larger dairies with highly consistent feeds they require, he says.

In addition, even though alfalfa is the fourth-largest crop in the U.S., it hasn’t felt the financial and policy support of the federal government, adds Newell.

“We have ag policies that really favor the commodity grain crops and cotton and rice. Alfalfa is pretty much left out in the cold.” An example is the lack of adequate forage insurance, he says.

Governmental support of alfalfa research has also been sorely lacking, says Neal Martin, former director of USDA’s U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center. Program funding and staffing have declined drastically as researchers have retired or found jobs elsewhere, or research stations have been shut down to save money.

“There are so few scientists that, when we put in a proposal, we may not have enough scientists to do the work,” he worries.

Although discouraged, Martin – whose position remains unfilled – hasn’t given up. “We don’t have enough champions. Somehow, we’ve got to stop talking about this stuff and get an action plan.”

As he prepared for his January 2013 retirement, Martin, along with Hatfield and other ARS scientists, began creating what turned into a 12-page document called the Roadmap For Alfalfa Research.

“We were trying to identify what kind of research was going on,” Hatfield says, “what was planned within ARS at this time and what we would see as critical areas in the future, and then have people respond to it.

“We tried to put together a road map that covers a fairly broad area, everything from genetics, dealing with crop improvement for digestibility and pathogen resistance, drought tolerance and new uses of alfalfa to try and increase its utilization on the landscape.”

One area of research mentioned in the road map: the development of a machine that can harvest alfalfa leaves and stems separately. Martin hopes the machine, developed by Kevin Shinners, University of Wisconsin ag engineer, can be produced large-scale and offer opportunities to market leaves for protein and stems for fiber, either as targeted livestock feed or for industrial uses.

The road map is still being scrutinized within ARS, but Hatfield hopes to make it available to the public within the next few months.

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