HFG: We’ve been talking about transgenic low-lignin alfalfa varieties for a long time. How does it feel to finally see the research and development transfer to farm fields?
DW: I feel proud that Forage Genetics International (FGI) formed a strategic partnership between The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center and Pioneer, in conjunction with Monsanto Company. This research consortium had the talent, financial support and patience to execute a complex plan over several years that included basic research and discovery of the reduced lignin trait, trait development, proof of concept (field and animal studies) and product development. Our goal was to use new biotech tools for modifying lignin content (ADL) beyond what is possible through conventional breeding techniques.
HFG: With limited seed supplies this first year, will the sale of HarvXtra varieties be controlled in 2016?
DW: First of all, until we get full deregulation in key export markets, we will not have a broad commercial release. HarvXtra alfalfa was deregulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in November of 2014. HarvXtra alfalfa is not currently available for sale and is still pending regulatory approvals in key export markets with functioning regulatory systems. We anticipate a limited introduction in 2016 in the Midwest and East.
HFG: In addition to the company brands that get their genetics directly from FGI, will there be trait use agreements for other breeding programs as well?
DW: Yes. Once U.S. and key global approvals are obtained, FGI anticipates the technology will be licensed to a number of seed brands. As we move through the regulatory process, more information will become available.
HFG: How many HarvXtra varieties are market-ready? Will both dormant and nondormant varieties be available?
DW: We have both dormant and non-dormant HarvXtra alfalfa experimental varieties that meet product concept, but only dormant types will be available in 2016 because of the limited launch market area described earlier. The HarvXtra alfalfa products sold in 2016 will be FD4 (fall dormancy 4) types. We will eventually have a range of HarvXtra alfalfa products FD3 to FD9.
HFG: It surprised many people when Roundup Ready alfalfa was taken off the market by court order in 2007. How concerned were you that transgenic alfalfa traits might be doomed before ever really getting started?
DW: In 2010, USDA/APHIS completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that supported commercialization of transgenic alfalfa traits. We believe that the 2010 EIS document and the higher court rulings in the Roundup Ready alfalfa dispute make it unlikely we will see court challenges associated with HarvXtra alfalfa. Since early 2011, U.S. farmers have continued to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa.
HFG: Will all HarvXtra varieties also be glyphosate resistant (Roundup Ready)? What will the technology fee be?
DW: Yes, HarvXtra alfalfa will only be sold in a trait stack with the Roundup Ready trait technology. FGI/Monsanto will announce the combined trait fee sometime later this year, or in early 2016.
HFG: Are you confident that the agronomics of HarvXtra varieties will be at least as good as the top conventional varieties?
DW: Yes, our testing shows that the new HarvXtra alfalfa varieties will be competitive with leading conventional varieties.
HFG: There has been a lot of discussion on how to manage low-lignin varieties. Options include: delayed cutting to eliminate a harvest, take the additional quality with same number of cuttings, or delay first cutting and manage the other cuttings the same. Will you have a recommendation or simply let each user figure out what works best?
DW: Our grower surveys suggest there won’t be a one size fits all model, and producers will be able to determine how HarvXtra alfalfa will most benefit their operation and management styles. We expect to see some growers maintain their current cutting schedule, while others will delay harvests to reduce the number of cuttings. Harvest flexibility will be a big advantage of HarvXtra.
HFG: What’s next for low-lignin alfalfa? Will future improvements simply be better agronomics, or can lignin percentage be reduced further?
DW: We’ve learned that the forage quality benefits of the HarvXtra alfalfa trait can be improved by selection for certain characteristics in the background germplasm of a HarvXtra alfalfa variety. This is now a primary focus in our breeding program. We are also making some very good progress in breeding for improved abiotic stress tolerance (such as salt), resistance to new races of existing pathogens (aphanomyces and anthracnose) and in forage yield potential, per se. We continue to look for opportunities to incorporate these improvements into next generation HarvXtra alfalfa products.
HFG: In corn and soybeans, we see a wide spread between the number of traited seed options available versus conventional. Do you see this same thing happening for alfalfa, or do you think conventional variety development will always remain strong?
DW: We are committed to supporting strong alfalfa breeding programs for both conventional and traited varieties.
HFG: There has been a lot of discussion about alfalfa varieties with protected protein and the many advantages that would come with that trait. Any estimates on how many years before we see those varieties in the field?
DW: This was an early target for our research consortium, but it is a complex problem, and we are still in discovery phase. However, there’s been some exciting progress in the last two years. We now have alfalfa plants containing condensed tannins, and in vitro results suggest a significant increase in rumen undegraded protein (RUP) in these plants. Although there is still much to do, we are cautiously optimistic. A best-case scenario would allow commercialization in about 10 years.
HFG: What other transgenic traits are in the pipeline that you’re excited about?
DW: Second generation herbicide tolerance will provide multiple modes of action that help manage weed resistance and offer better control of some problem perennial dicot weeds in the West. FGI is also looking at a few exciting alternatives that would cause delayed flowering in alfalfa — potentially improving both forage yield and forage quality. We think there may also be the potential for a second and incremental improvement in fiber digestibility through one of a few novel strategies coming from a broad U.S. Department of Energy investment in biofuels research. There are also nontransgenic, applied genomic approaches for novel traits that we are excited about. It’s never been more exciting to be a plant breeder.
HFG: Do you think alfalfa will ever be able to compete with corn silage from a yield perspective?
DW: Alfalfa and corn silage are perfect partners. Corn silage will be hard to beat for forage yield potential, but alfalfa will offer unique forage quality attributes, rotation benefits for corn, and the well-known and not well-understood benefits of having alfalfa and corn silage together in a dairy ration. We believe HarvXtra alfalfa and our work on improving efficiency of alfalfa protein utilization will make alfalfa a larger share of the forage diet.
HFG: Favorite food?
Trick question? Alfalfa sprouts are not a stand-alone favorite but improve any salad. Good yogurt and great cheese.
This article appeared in the January 2016 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 12.
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