Some of you might consider that this topic would not be addressed by Daniel and me. At Forage Innovations, we are not the biggest promotors of alfalfa, but when we do use more permanent rotations on farms, alfalfa becomes, many times the most viable option. As a matter of fact, to prove we know what we are talking about, in the 2021 World Dairy Expo Forage Analysis Superbowl, the Grand Champion Alfalfa Hay and the 2nd place Alfalfa Haylage were raised and harvested on one of Daniel Olson’s farms.
The 3rd Most Valuable Crop
According to the Midwest Forage Association, alfalfa is currently the 3rd most valuable crop in the US and with good reason. It has been an integral part of dairy rations for many years. Acres devoted to alfalfa, however, have been declining for about 20 years. The reasons for this decline are detailed below. And coincidentally millions and millions of bioengineering dollars have been devoted to overcoming alfalfa’s shortcomings in the attempt to make alfalfa better. Two of the pieces of their efforts have been realized and a third is still at least 10 years away (as it has been for the last 10 years!)
The Queen of Forages
Alfalfa has long been known as the Queen of Forages. Obviously, this means alfalfa does have many great things going for it. Some of these, but not all, include:
But Still Not Perfect
However, some of the shortcomings with alfalfa are:
National average yields for alfalfa have actually gone down over the last 20 years by a half ton per acre. This is speculative, but could it be because of the bigger haying equipment and therefore compaction? Monoculture alfalfa has a much less complex root system than does warm and cool season grasses and even clover. Polyculture root systems are much better at alleviating and preventing compaction.
The Goals of Biotech Alfalfa
So how do we make alfalfa better? Let’s first review what genetically modified alfalfa is doing:
This trait is referred to technically as down-regulated for lignin as opposed to a gene insertion. This is important because low-lignin alfalfa will never appear as a stand-alone trait because it is not identifiable chemically from conventional alfalfa since the reduction is not outside the realm of some normally highly digestible alfalfas. The developers need to be able to identify their creations to be sure they are collecting the trait fees to pay for their research.
If we examine the goals of biotech alfalfa, it seems with exception of the Roundup Ready® part, an alfalfa is being created to be more like red clover! Red clover has about 10 percentage units higher NDFD30 and about twice the bypass protein than does alfalfa.
Making Alfalfa Better, the Old Fashion Way
In trying to discover how to make alfalfa better, we simply need to look at what has been done with bioengineering. We want to, first, increase yield. This is something that has not been done with low-lignin alfalfa. Second, we want to increase digestibility. And third, we want better bypass protein levels which decreases the amount of expensive supplementation needed to prepare diets for high producing cows. So how do we do this? Here are three steps:
We have found after many years of looking at it, we can increase the yield of alfalfa by about 15% from mixing several types of alfalfa together. We have an advantage since we are not alfalfa breeders, but use alfalfas from the various people who are alfalfa breeders. Instead of pushing the best alfalfa a company breeds, we combine the best alfalfa from different alfalfa breeding philosophies.
This could be termed hybrid vigor, but we think it is much more. We are intentional to include different types of root systems, Daniel has established hundreds of plot-trial blocks on his own farm to watch what combinations work best. This combination use of taproot, branch root, and rhizomatous alfalfas allows the crop to make a more efficient use of the rhizosphere or root space.
Of course, an alfalfa breedingcompany is not going to tell you to buy someone else’s alfalfa to combine with theirs, but we can and do!
Adding Cool Season Grasses to the alfalfa
In Wisconsin, grasses had disappeared from the state’s meadows due an extreme love of alfalfa by University of Wisconsin and USDA Forage Research leaders from the 1960s through the early 2000s. New York and New England fortunately had continued, for the most part using grasses even though that generation of grasses were not the improved (read: late-heading) European grasses which we can use today.
Vegetative grasses are virtually all leaves and have a higher NDFD30 plus a lower uNDF240 than does alfalfa, raising the digestibility of the harvested crop. Grasses also provide complex soil-building root systems which prevent wind and soil erosion much better than alfalfa alone. In the Upper Midwest, grasses need only be seeded at 3 to 5 pounds per acre to provide a 60% alfalfa/40% grass crop.
Add some red clover as part of the seeding
Red clover has both a higher fiber digestibility and a much higher bypass protein content. Now that we have a great 4-year red clover, the choice to add this crop to our mix is even more compelling.
When fields are not completely flat nor with homogenous soils, clovers will fill in where alfalfa may not do well. This will also help with alfalfa’s yield deficiencies. In doing this, we have added diversity to our hay crop, and that is never a bad thing!
So What About the Roundup Ready®?
We have found over the years, using a fast-starting, high-quality cool season annual or biennial such as Italian ryegrass (at 2#s/acre) or festololium (at 3#s/acre) as a nurse crop accelerates the process of turning our new planting into a high-quality hayfield. There is no small grain to harvest, and the first cutting will be high quality haylage – a mixture of vegetative grasses and legumes.
Well, we think this is the best and most economical way to make alfalfa the very best it can be. We already have products with proven, synergistic combinations which give these advantages. Contact Daniel at email@example.com or Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how to best proceed on your farm.