After nearly four years, alfalfa growers will again be able to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa starting this spring. And growers are “cautiously optimistic” that this management option is here to stay, say seed company representatives.
“To some degree, growers are of the ‘I’ll-see-it-when-I-see-it,’ mind-set,” says Matt Fanta, Forage Genetics vice president of sales and marketing. “On the other hand, the first questions they ask are ‘Who’s marketing Roundup Ready alfalfas?’ and ‘How soon can I get them?’ ”
“They’re excited about getting product,” agrees Dwight Tuttle, national brand manager for America’s Alfalfa. “But the major question from growers still looms: Is further legal action going to take place that’s going to remove Roundup Ready alfalfa from the market?”
At presstime, no legal action had been taken, although the Center for Food Safety (CFS), which filed the 2007 lawsuit to stop the sale of the crop, was promising another one.
“We still fully intend to challenge the approval and file a lawsuit,” says George Kimbrell, CFS attorney. “We’re going to challenge under the National Environmental Policy Act again, this time arguing that the EIS (environmental impact statement) is inadequate. Secondly, we’re going to challenge under the Endangered Species Act.”
Kimbrell says CFS will contest the decision that USDA doesn’t have to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Roundup Ready alfalfa’s impact on endangered species.
Growers are literally anxious to “get their hands on the seed,” says Brent Johnson, Syngenta alfalfa product manager. Just after the deregulation announcement, Johnson was one of several who fielded questions from growers at the recent Mid-America Alfalfa Expo in Kearney, NE.
“There’s a lot of uneasiness about making sure that they get physical possession and that the seed will be delivered on time,” he says.
After the deregulation decision was posted for public record, growers and distributors in the West began receiving seed deliveries as early as the second week of February, Johnson says. “Where planting has begun or is currently going on, seed is already being distributed right down to the grower level.”
“We’re optimistic,” Tuttle adds, “that we’re going to be able to supply those growers with the varieties that they want in the dormancies for their production areas.
“In the Midwest, the interest is pretty keen on Roundup Ready alfalfa because it’s a spring-planted area,” he says. Yet transgenic alfalfa must compete for acres with high-value commodity crops.
“It’s hard for us to judge what the actual impact for spring planting is going to be in those areas and east,” Tuttle says. “When you get in the fall-planted areas (such as California), growers right now have a lot of options as to what they can plant. It’s just the wrong time of year to relaunch there.”
Growers primarily want to know what varieties are available and from which companies, the seed company representatives say. Some also ask about seed quality.
More than 40 varieties, varying from fall dormancy 3 to 9, are on the market. Nearly all were released the first couple of years after Roundup Ready alfalfa was launched.
A listing of those approved by the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) and the National Alfalfa Variety And Miscellaneous Legumes Review Board can be found on page 14. Other varieties that don’t have board approval, or are currently seeking that approval, are also being marketed.
As far as quality goes, bagged transgenic seed was unbagged after the court stopped its sale and put in climate-controlled bulk storage in the West, where it stores the best, says Johnson.
“The quality of the Roundup Ready alfalfa seed will parallel that of any alfalfa seed that growers will buy this spring,” says Tuttle. “We want to make sure growers are aware that the condition of the seed they are getting meets our standards for premium proprietary seed.”
“People just want to buy it,” says Dennis Fitzke, alfalfa product manager for Hoegemeyer Seeds. He, like Johnson, was part of the Nebraska expo’s impromptu Q & A session on the crop.
One grower asked him how to take out an old Roundup Ready alfalfa stand.
“I just reminded him that the best chemical to terminate alfalfa is 2,4-D mixed with some dicamba. That’s true of conventional alfalfa as well as Roundup Ready,” Fitzke says. Adding glyphosate to that mix will clean up grasses or other missed weeds, university experts recommend.
Not many growers are asking about seeding rates, although Fitzke estimates they’ll seed conservatively because of the higher price of the transgenic seed. Using higher seeding rates to help choke out weeds isn’t necessary with the Roundup Ready technology.
“On the other hand, they realize that not 100% of the seeds in that bag are Roundup-resistant. That’s the reason we advise growers to go in and spray the field right away to take out those susceptible alfalfa plants before they get much growth on them and compete for light, space and nutrients,” he says.
Growers want the transgenic crop for one or more of three advantages it offers, Fitzke says. One is that it keeps weeds out of older, thinning stands. “I say that’s least important – they probably would be better off to take that older stand out and start over because they’re probably giving up yield.”
Transgenic alfalfa also allows commercial growers to market 100% alfalfa hay.
“But most important: It opens the door to make stand establishment easier and a lot of different management styles or seeding techniques can be used or at least made easier with the Roundup Ready technology.
“And, obviously, spring seeding is when weed pressure is the greatest and the technology will really help out a lot,” Fitzke says.
Growers who opt to use the technology can get help with licensing paperwork from their seed dealers. GPS location information is required on every field planted to Roundup Ready alfalfa, but that will be coordinated by seed companies and dealers, says Forage Genetics’ Fanta.