Alfalfa consolidation rules the day

By Mike Rankin

The alfalfa seed industry has gone through a massive makeover in the past 20 years. There are significantly fewer seed marketers, breeding programs, and the number of university testing trials is down to a precious few. Further, there are additional traits beyond just yield and disease resistance to consider.

Recently, I was thinking about how this has affected the entire process of variety selection, which, by the way, is a proven means of adding yield and/or improving forage quality before planting even begins.

In case you were not aware, not every seed brand has its own breeding program. That has always been the case. What has changed is both the number of breeding programs and the number of brands, with fewer of each. The vast majority of alfalfa varieties on the market originate from four breeding programs.

This consolidation provides both positives and negatives for the alfalfa producer. The remaining breeding programs are all first-class entities with highly skilled individuals making cultivar selections. They wouldn’t have survived otherwise.

On a negative note, there is less competition and brand choices for the farmer. Many brands have simply fallen along the proverbial roadside.

The greatest challenge in the variety selection game is that university performance trials have become few and far between. There was a day when many universities were testing 30 to 40 varieties per year, but those days are gone. This has occurred for several reasons:

• Program managers either left or retired, and their positions weren’t filled.

• Companies preferred not to enter their varieties.

• The expense of running or entering trials was too great given economic constraints.

The result of fewer third-party testing programs is that producers must now find out in real time if a variety is a top performer or not, at least relative to other brand options. This situation is likely not to change.

Even with significant industry consolidation and fewer variety trials, there is still money to be made by devoting some time to alfalfa variety selection. There remain some foundational selection concepts that are as true today as they have ever been. In fact, there may be more. Here’s my list:

1. Get data if you can, but that’s becoming more difficult with fewer university trials and very little on-farm testing.

2. Don’t select based only on one trait. This is always a recipe for disaster and is akin to picking your spouse based solely on hair color.

Whether the trait is Roundup Ready, HarvXtra, high digestibility, fall dormancy, or a particular level of pest resistance, there are performance and other trait variations within the group. In other words, not all (fill in the trait) varieties are created or perform equally.

3. Consider fall dormancy. Though fall dormancy rating isn’t as strongly linked to winterhardiness as was once the case, it is still an important consideration for both yield and forage quality. The trend is toward higher fall dormancy ratings with fast regrowth potential and exceptional winter survival.

4. Yield still matters. Though most new traits are touted for their improved forage quality, forage yield remains the key factor to a profitable alfalfa enterprise. A modest 1/4 ton (dry matter) per acre yield advantage equates in value to 13 to 17 bushels per acre of corn. This level of yield disparity is virtually indiscernible to the naked eye but amounts to a huge value when factored over multiple acres and years.

5. Seed cost is easy to recover with enhanced performance. Unlike an annual crop such as corn, added alfalfa seed cost doesn’t have to be recovered in one year. The real “cost” of seed is not reflected in the purchase price alone.

Seeding an inferior-yielding variety, regardless of price, means that long-term costs of production are higher per ton of forage produced. Generally speaking, advanced genetics and performance are going to cost more money. Conversely, cost is always a consideration when choosing between comparable varieties.