Alfalfa has come a long way. Improvements in breeding programs and varieties have led to more yield, persistence and winter survival, and improved forage quality.
Along with this came many mergers and buyouts resulting in three alfalfa breeding programs left: Forage Genetics International, Pioneer (DuPont) and Dairyland/CalWest (Dow).
Mike Rankin, University of Wisconsin-Extension soils and crops agent in Fond du Lac County says, "Alfalfa varieties today look very different than those of the 1990s. We have seen a shift in fall dormancy ratings and we have seen many specialized traits such as forage quality, standability, PLH resistance, soil specific traits and glyphosate resistance. Also we are now seeing hybrid development."
He also points out, "Winterkill in the 1990s resulted in a shift in the focus of breeding programs to address the issue."
Rankin adds, "The relationship between fall dormancy, yield potential, and persistence has been broken. Yield doesn't need to be sacrificed for persistence and winter survival."
With more intense cutting regimes, plant breeders also developed alfalfa that could stand up under this stress.
In the area of quality, Rankin credits the development and use of scissors-cut programs for improvements in quality through decisions of when to begin cutting.
Nutritionists have also played a part as they guide their clients in order to improve the quality of their forages and increase milk production.
CHANGES IN SOIL FERTILITY
Rankin points out that soil nutrient levels are changing, too, and sometimes impacting alfalfa productivity.
More corn silage and higher fertilizer prices are trending the potassium levels in soil down and a lack of sulfur in rainfall with environmental rules regulating utilities, sulfur levels in the soil are also going down.
He continues, "We are also seeing higher removal rates due to greater yield and more frequent cutting."
While alfalfa lags behind corn and soybeans in acquiring transgenetic traits, Rankin says there are some changes in the works including low lignin alfalfa, drought tolerant varieties, the development of yield genes, pest-resistant varieties (insects and diseases), and genetics resulting in improved protein utilization.
Growers in 2012 struggled with the affects of drought and insects and shorter, more frequent cut intervals.
The early spring resulted in a longer growing season. There was a record number of growing degree days, and that, combined with the drought, resulted in fewer days to flower.
Rankin says if drought was the only stress in 2012, alfalfa stands should bounce back without a problem. If there were also stressors from leafhoppers, late fall cut, or frequent cuts, there could be a risk.
Rankin said the seed supply looks like it will be adequate for 2013 but the best varieties will be in the shortest supply.
He also mentions there will be more coated seed on the market this year and he reminds growers that the coating makes up about one-third of the total weight of the seed so the seeding rate will need to be adjusted and more seed will need to be used.
Rankin recommends evaluating the alfalfa stands early in spring and then keep evaluating them often in order to make decisions about whether there will be an adequate forage supply.
Then decide on a plan: seed more acres, buy standing alfalfa, or seek an alternative feed.