Acid-tolerant alfalfa, an annual legume that matches the yield and quality of alfalfas and a tall-growing biofuel crop.
Those are three of several promising new forages being developed or released through Canadian breeding programs. They're all part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's national forage breeding program, which has research centers in several provinces.
Program leader Surya Acharya lists several improved selections, most of which are adapted to parts of the northern U.S. Be sure to check with your local extension service on the adaptability of any of the following you may be interested in:
Alfalfa — Canada's first alfalfa that performs well in acidic soils may be registered in 2008, says Acharya. A limited commercial seed supply would be available two years later. It's one of four alfalfa populations being tested by breeders at Cornell University and three Canadian centers, and will be well-adapted to most areas with acidic soils in the northern U.S. and western Canada.
Acharya and two colleagues trace their acid-tolerant alfalfa back to a 1996 field trip to Prince George, British Columbia. They saw very old alfalfa stands in highly acidic soil, below 5.5 pH. Very few alfalfa plants were surviving. Their cuttings that day became the germplasm for what has become known as the Prince George Population. In 2008, the best acid-tolerant population will complete three years in western forage trials.
“Our selected populations are doing very well so far in acidic soils here in Alberta and in New York,” says Acharya.
Fenugreek — This annual legume produces almost as much forage as a mature stand of alfalfa, with comparable quality. It maintains its quality all summer, so growers can take just one late-season cutting.
Tristar, a forage variety for western Canada, was released in 2004, and seed is being produced by AgriCore United, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Newfield Seeds, Nipawin, Saskatchewan. It's being refined for earlier maturity and higher yields, says Acharya.
Cicer milkvetch — Seed of anew variety is ready for release to a private company, possibly next February. Cicer milkvetch, a bloat-free legume intended for pasture or silage production, can produce a good hay crop in mixed stands with grasses. Due to its winterhardiness and wide adaptation, stands are expected to last more than 10 years.
A predecessor, AC Oxley II, was registered in 2001. Yields of the new variety are higher and stands can be established in a single year rather than in three years using a new method developed at Lethbridge, Alberta.
“We're hoping that, with rapid establishment and higher yield, the new cultivar will be very popular,” says Acharya.
Orchardgrass — In collaboration with Shabtai Bittman of Agassiz, British Columbia, a breakthrough in orchardgrass breeding has occurred with the recent release of three varieties with outstanding CMV (cocksfoot mottle virus) resistance, in addition to other important traits, such as high yield. Seed is being produced by TerraLink Horticulture, Abbotsford, British Columbia. CMV has been a problem for orchardgrass in moist coastal stands.
A fourth new line, released in 2007 and licensed to TerraLink, is called Kayak. It's more winterhardy than older varieties. “Kayak is for the prairies and northern Great Plains, wherever the moisture is good,” says Acharya. “We found in our western forage trials that even in the dry locations this new variety did very well.”
Perennial cereal rye — This hybrid forage grows like a cereal but with the longevity of a perennial grass. It persists for several years and is productive for silage or grazing under irrigation. It produces silage much earlier than annual cereal rye and keeps growing after it's cut or grazed.
German scientists first developed it for African dryland conditions. Canadian researchers worked for more than a decade to develop a North American version. Their first variety, ACE-1, became available to producers in fall 2003.
“A new version of this crop with improved seed yield and quality is being developed at Lethbridge,” Acharya reports.
Sainfoin — Improved selections of this bloat-free legume are being tested in trials at Lethbridge. Old sainfoin varieties grow back slowly after grazing or cutting, and quickly die out in mixed stands. But the new selections produce high yields in pure stands, and survive and compete well in mixed stands with alfalfa. However, two more issues are ahead, according to Acharya.
“First, I'm looking for some help from private agencies or companies to let me try what it does in terms of animal gain. These are expensive tests; we have to graze it directly and get that data. Second, we need seed companies to cooperate a little on prices because sainfoin seed is sold in the pod. The seeding rate is 45 lbs/acre.”
Giant wild ryegrass — This giant native prairie grass, a perennial native to southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, is being tested for biofuel production. It grows at least 8' tall and produces more biomass than any other forage grass in western Canada. Its nutritional value is similar to that of western wheatgrass or bromegrass.
Acharya plans to begin crossing giant wild ryegrass with other species to produce dual-purpose crops.