Just as humans can enjoy the benefits of “super foods,” so too can farms enjoy “super crops.” Just look at alfalfa, a perennial forage legume which normally lives four to eight years, but can live more than 20 years, depending on variety and climate. It’s an oldie but a goodie when it comes to livestock forage.

But what is the future of alfalfa in America? That was the topic discussed by Don Miller, Ph.D., of Mountain View Seeds at the recent American Forage & Grasslands Council Annual Meeting.

“Since 2000, there’s been a steady decline in alfalfa acres across the U.S.,” Miller said. “I think it’s tied to having more corn in TMRs. But I think there are things in the future to make alfalfa more desirable.”

As background, Miller noted that from the 1970s through 2000, there were many alfalfa breeding programs, but since 2000 there has been a consolidation of companies and fewer breeding programs. Today, only two or three companies provide almost all the alfalfa varieties for the industry. And the remaining companies have significantly downsized their alfalfa breeding programs, especially in the development of semi- and non-dormant alfalfas.

The good news is growers have seen a lot of improvement with alfalfa, seeing significant increases in harvest yield. Disease resistance, winter hardiness and nematode resistance have also come a long way. Those less dormant varieties have more yield potential too.

We’ve seen some recent significant genetic advances in the crop, which Miller listed as improved forage quality, better fiber digestibility and better leaf-to-stem ratio (resulting in more leaves), which provide an economic source of protein vs. soybean meal for TMR.

“More of the bale is being utilized by the animal that eats it,” he said. “This gives producers a more desirable product. Improved fiber digestibility speeds the rate of passage which increases intake – which all improves profitability.”

Expanding alfalfa’s role on the farm in the future

Alfalfa – good for livestock, preventing soil erosion, increasing soil nitrogen and carbon sequestration. Photo courtesy of Howard F. Schwartz, Colorado State, Bugwood.org

Those companies still focused on improving alfalfa are working on breeding for tolerance to stress. “Plant breeders are currently developing alfalfa varieties that can buffer alfalfa yields against the adverse effects of extreme weather and environmental stresses using what can be labeled as ‘climate change genetics,’” Miller said. “These genetic advances help delay harvest, if necessary, without losing quality.”

A climate change factor of late has been drought, one of the most limiting factors in crop production. Scientists are breeding alfalfa for drought tolerance – for forage production under less-than-optimal moisture (up to 20% less water). They’re aiming to select alfalfa that can go dormant and survive during hot summer months or dry periods, in what is dubbed drought-induced dormancy. Grower want alfalfa to have the ability to return to normal production after drought-induced dormancy. Trials are currently underway at New Mexico State University (Miller’s former place of employment).

He noted that drought and soil salinity are often tied together, and especially in the Delmarva region. Breeding for salinity tolerance will help increase revenue on marginal soils.

We’re also looking at new or expanded roles for alfalfa. “It’s a solid nitrogen source – this is an old concept but very relevant considering current nitrogen fertilizer prices,” Miller said. “Alfalfa can supply up to 200 units [of nitrogen] to succeeding crops. We need to re-educate people on the nitrogen benefits.”

Alfalfa is also a solid carbon sequestration option. The crop can sequester about 178 lbs. of carbon per acre per year, which makes it a potential candidate for a new revenue stream for those looking to sell carbon credits.

Miller also predicted there will be increased use for grazing. With improved genetics, grazing-tolerant alfalfa varieties have been bred to survive intensive grazing pressure while maintaining high forage yields. “You just need to know how to manage it,” he said. “We will see more alfalfa in mixed grass pastures; it can increase animal productivity and harvest costs … I think we can capitalize on a few of these things.”

Those interested in learning more on that front can download “Grazing Alfalfa: Economic and Sustainable Use of a High-Value Crop” from the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance at alfalfa.org/publications.php.

by Courtney Llewellyn