A bright alfalfa future

By Mike Rankin, Managing Editor

In a job like mine, traveling to meetings and conferences around the country comes with the territory. Following a slug of recent fall and winter forage fests, one of the many things I’ve taken home is the thought that alfalfa is in a pretty good place for the future if a lot of what’s in the works comes together.

Before this gets too sappy, we need to recognize that not everything is a bed of roses in the land of alfalfa. Private breeding programs continue to consolidate, leaving less infrastructure for new and diverse breeding initiatives and probably fewer options in the marketplace. Water issues in California have contributed to significant alfalfa acreage reductions in that state, though it remains a leading alfalfa hub.

Alfalfa hay exports to countries like Japan and South Korea, our largest export partners, have declined somewhat in the past few years. Furthermore, alfalfa acres in the U.S. have eroded in many of our dairy regions in favor of higher yielding corn silage.

OK, that’s the bad news; however, there’s plenty to be optimistic about. Leading that list is the launch of reduced lignin alfalfa. Alfalfa growers I’ve talked to are excited; seed company representatives indicated that they had no problem selling their limited inventories.

Looking to the future, there’s the promise of better protein utilization in alfalfa. This will have huge ramifications from both a feeding and environmental standpoint and you can read more about it on page 6.

It’s not just about transgenic trait breeding gains. Conventional alfalfa varieties today are better than they’ve ever been and there’s no sign of that changing. Varieties now have greater yield potential, stress tolerance, winterhardiness and persistence than at any time in the past. Yes, there are fewer in the alfalfa breeding business, but the ones that remain are a dedicated lot with a passion for alfalfa.

Alfalfa also seems to be making a comeback in the South, both as a harvested hay crop and as a grazing legume drilled into existing bermudagrass stands. Joe Bouton’s development of several grazing-tolerant alfalfa varieties adapted to the South helped fuel the increase in acres. Bouton, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, is the subject of this issue’s Forage Shop Talk on page 18.

On the export front, China is taking almost exclusively alfalfa hay and the U.S. Forage Export Counsel reports sales to that country were up nearly 40 percent in 2015. More than 50 percent of our total forage exports are now alfalfa.

From a research perspective, alfalfa has never come close to receiving the public research dollars doled out for corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat and rice. In fact, for a lot of years the alfalfa number totaled zero. That’s changing. Thanks to the efforts of the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance (NAFA), almost $3 million have been allocated for public research the past two years and another $2 million is targeted for 2016. Though these are still comparatively small amounts for a top-five value crop, it’s a start.

In summary, it looks like there’s some renewed alfalfa momentum building in several sectors of the industry. Though acres have been lost in some U.S. regions because of corn silage, water or nut trees, it looks to me like there’s good reason for optimism. That’s great news for farmers, livestock, our soils and the environment.

This editorial appeared in the February 2016 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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