'I think we've got better than a 50-50 chance of putting something together," says Rudy Radke.
Radke, a North Dakota State University ag diversification specialist, is rating the prospects of alfalfa wet fractionation coming to the Upper Midwest. He's a leader in the Alfalfa New Products Initiative (ANPI), a group of farmers, university specialists and others, which is studying the feasibility of the processing method.
The initiative, with members in Minnesota, North Dakota and Michigan, is also led by Brent Sorenson, a senior associate with the Red River Trade Corridor, and Jim LeCureux, an extension value-added agent with Michigan State University.
If the economics and other issues work out, they foresee alfalfa processing plants being built in all three states, perhaps by farmer-owned cooperatives partnered together and aligned with a major feed company.
In wet fractionation, juice is squeezed out of green-chopped alfalfa, then is dehydrated. The resulting material - rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and enzymes - can be used in a variety of feed and food products.
The process was developed nearly 30 years ago in California, says Radke. But it's never been utilized on a large scale except in France. In that country today, 4,500 farmers own a co-op with 13 plants that process alfalfa from 110,000 acres.
More than 30 products are produced. Most are protein concentrates for livestock feed, but the co-op recently added a human-grade protein supplement aimed at replacing casein in the baking industry.
A separate harvesting and processing procedure turns out reconstituted bales for France's dairy industry. These bales, available year-round, are uniform in quality and can be custom-formulated to meet buyers' nutritional specifications.
The alfalfa for both processes is harvested by co-op employees using big equipment that covers ground fast. Once harvesting begins, crews run 24 hours a day all summer, taking four or five cuttings from the 110,000 acres, says Radke.
"The beauty of it for the Upper Midwest would be that it takes some of the risk out of hay production, because it doesn't get rained on after it's cut," he says. That benefit makes wet fractionation look especially attractive to growers in northeastern Michigan, where value-added agent LeCureux is located.
"They're very interested because the No. 1 problem up here is getting our product dried down so we can bale it," LeCureux says. "And we also have to look for higher-value products so we can generate more income."
Last summer, Radke, Sorenson and LeCureux led an ANPI delegation to France to view the alfalfa processing operation and meet with co-op leaders. They were impressed with what they saw and heard, but also identified a few challenges.
One question that has to be answered: Would U.S. dairymen pay a premium for high-quality, uniform bales?
Also, alfalfa is the primary protein source for livestock in France. Here it competes with soybeans and other high-protein feeds. Could alfalfa products take market-share away from their competition?
ANPI recently finished a major study evaluating the market potential for feed products made from wet fractionation. The next step is lining up a potential feed company partner.
"Within the year we will know if this thing is feasible or not," says Radke. "If it is - if we have a joint-venture partner - then we would have to do a feasibility analysis and a business plan."