Opposition to genetically engineered crops like Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa and a lack of support for forage research, teaching and outreach are among the major challenges facing hay and forage growers in the U.S., according to Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia Extension forage specialist.

“Should RR alfalfa not make it back to the market, trait development and breeding work on our nation’s third most economically important crop (alfalfa) will slow to a near stop,” said Hancock to the American Farm Bureau Federation hay committee in San Antonio, TX, last week. “A ripple effect will be felt throughout the entire forage breeding community, and many innovations will be stifled.”

Biotechnology is being used to develop alfalfa varieties with reduced lignin content, enhanced bypass protein fractions, better drought tolerance, less leaf shatter, delayed flowering, improved disease resistance, and increased tolerance to aluminum. In other forage crops, it’s helping to enable broadleaf herbicide resistance within legumes, increase digestibility in bermudagrass and improve drought tolerance and summer productivity in tall fescue.

“Since traditional breeding methods for forage crops are extremely slow and the profit margin in forage variety development is narrower than in any of the other agronomic crops, genetic engineering is the only realistic hope for major improvements in our forage crops.”

Forage research, teaching and outreach efforts are declining, said Hancock. Since 1984, forage-based livestock system research in land-grant universities has been reduced by more than 60%. During the same time frame, the number of university faculty teaching forage management decreased by nearly 40%. The number of Extension forage specialists has declined by 30%. An additional 30% decline is expected by 2018.

“Though it may seem self-serving to point out these trends, it is nonetheless an issue that should be troubling to all who derive their livelihood from hay and forage production enterprises,” said Hancock.

Along with the challenges, he sees numerous opportunities for hay and forage growers to expand their enterprises over the long term. Examples include:

  • Increased interest in pasture-based beef and dairy enterprises, particularly in the eastern U.S. “There are real market opportunities for ‘grass-fed’ and ‘natural’ milk and meat,” said Hancock. “Though the merits of these production systems relative to conventional production systems remain highly debated, there is no doubt that these products command a premium in the market.”
  • Stabilizing hay export markets. “There may even be market expansion for high-quality hay shipped to the Persian Gulf.”
  • Growing interest in biofuels. Along with creating new markets, the biomass-for-biofuels industry is also likely to have an indirect effect on hay production, Hancock noted. “The industry effort now under way to increase biomass bale density and baling efficiency will likely yield transportation and efficiency gains for hay producers.”
To see a powerpoint of Hancock’s presentation, go to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension forage Web site.