Several new uses for alfalfa are in the development pipeline, says Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist.
“With alfalfa acreage declining, it's imperative for the industry to find new uses for the forage if it's going to stay economically viable,” says Undersander.
Here's a look at two promising possibilities:
At his lab in the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, Madison, WI, microbiologist Paul Weimer has developed an alfalfa-based adhesive for use in plywood manufacturing. The adhesive is made from the plant fiber that remains after the alfalfa is pressed or put through the process of wet fractionation.
It could replace some of the one billion pounds of petroleum-based adhesive that are used every year to bond plywood sheets.
“Regular plywood adhesive is made from a compound called phenol-formaldehyde, which is very toxic,” says Weimer. “We've discovered that we can replace 30% of the petroleum-based adhesive with our alfalfa-based product, while still maintaining the adhesive properties of the phenol-formaldehyde — even under wet conditions.”
The alfalfa-based adhesive also offers benefits that petroleum-based adhesives can't.
“With most adhesives, when you take plywood and press the sheets together, there's a line between them that gets very dark, which is called the glue line,” he explains. “For furniture, you don't want a dark glue line — you want a light one. Our materials make a very light glue line.”
The adhesive is strong, too. The plywood industry analyzes how well an adhesive performs with two measures: wood failure and shear strength. The industry standard for wood failure is 85%, which the alfalfa adhesive meets, but shear strength is running 10 to 15% below that of current adhesives.
“We're working to improve that,” says Weimer, who's applied for a patent on the adhesive-making process.
The research center is seeking a manufacturer capable of producing the adhesive on a large scale for testing under industrial conditions.
By the end of next year, a lutein-extraction facility is expected to be up and running at Cozad, NE.
“The plan is to have alfalfa delivered fresh to the plant, where it will undergo wet fractionation,” says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension forage specialist.
“Lutein will be separated from the extracted alfalfa juice and sold as a health supplement,” adds Anderson, who's been working on the project since its inception. “The dry matter will remain intact as ground alfalfa, which will make outstanding cattle feed.”
Lutein is a natural substance that helps prevent age-related macular degeneration, a debilitating eye disease. To date, the only other source of natural lutein is marigold petals.
Once it hits full capacity, the plant, owned by Minnesota-based NuTein, is expected to process five cuttings per season from 15,000 acres of alfalfa.
Forage Genetics is also on board, says Anderson. “That company's first step is to screen existing varieties for higher concentrations of lutein. Then scientists plan to make genetic improvements to increase lutein concentrations.”