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A wider harvest window. Later cutting dates. More yield per harvest. Better forage quality. Probable better feed efficiency. Improved milk production.

Those are some of the private sector acclamations for what is popularly known as reduced lignin or low lignin alfalfa. Public sector testing and verification of those claims is pending, including on the University of Wisconsin-Madison's research farm at Arlington.

This new version of alfalfa, available under two brand names, has come into the commercial market in limited quantities during the past two years. The Arlington research station received its first reduced lignin seed this year and has recently begun to harvest it, according to Dave Combs, a dairy nutritionist with the Extension Service.

Combs was one of three speakers who described the traits of reduced lignin alfalfa at the Manitowoc County Forage Council's summer field day at the Brunmeier Dairy Farm, which is one of the first growers of the new variety in the area.

The other speakers were Dairyland Seed’s forage product manager Chad Staudinger and Dan Habermann, an agronomist with Country Visions Cooperative, which also sells one of the reduced lignin alfalfa varieties.

Reduced lignin basics

The extension of the harvest window with reduced lignin alfalfa compared to conventional alfalfa is approximately 7 days without loss of forage quality and fiber digestibility, Combs said.

That extra time can yield more tonnage per cutting and, especially with the first cutting, provide “a cushion” on the timetable if rains cause a delay in the harvest, Combs said. Making use of the extended cutting interval — such as from 28 days to 35 instead — could reduce the annual number of cuttings from four to three and save on harvesting costs, but Combs doesn’t expect many farmers to do that.

Another favorable trait with reduced or low lignin alfalfa is that there is no yield drag — something which has been a challenge in other situations with new technology or special traits, he said. Because lignin, which is a polymer of aromatic alcohols, is essential to the strength of alfalfa plant stems, there have been concerns about lodging but that has not been shown to be a problem.

Combs did, however, compare the HarvXtra variety to brown mid-rib corn, which has the best digestibility rate among the corn hybrids but is also prone to lodging. He explained that HarvXtra was developed by blocking two enzymes which contribute to the creation of lignin.

Reduced lignin lineup

The Hi-Gest 360 variety from Alforex that is sold by Dairyland Seed dealers was first available to farmers in 2015. Bred naturally, it has a lignin reduction of 7 to 10 percent and does not have a Roundup Ready (RR) trait.

Introduced to the market in 2016 by Forage Genetics International and sold in eastern Wisconsin by Country Visions Cooperative, HarvXtra was developed as a genetically modified organism, comes with the RR trait and provides a 10 to 15 percent reduction in lignin. Combs noted that a 15 to 18 percent reduction in lignin would extend the normal cutting window by 8 to 10 days instead of 7.

Explaining that lignin ties up fiber in forages and reduces digestibility in the dairy cow’s rumen, Combs cited research data to back that point. The percentage of lignin in the dry matter of alfalfa generally ranges from 5.4 at its immature stage to 8.4 at a mature stage and inevitably leads to drops in milk production.

On data collected in southern Wisconsin for Hi-Gest, there were increases of 14 percent on five annual cuttings at 28-day interval and of 10 percent on three cuttings at 35-day intervals on the total digestion of fiber formula that Combs had a major role in developing.

Alforex’s HiGest alfalfa

Staudinger explained that Alforex is a combined alfalfa breeding program of Dairyland Seed and Cal/West Seeds. This includes research sites at Clinton and West Salem in Wisconsin and two in California.

The goal with the Hi-Gest variety is to improve alfalfa quality while maintaining yield, stand persistence and pest resistance, Staudinger said. In northeast Wisconsin, he recommends keeping a 28-day cutting interval unless forced to extend it by the weather.

Staudinger announced that in 2017 Dairyland Seed and Sunstra will be introducing HybriForce 3430, which is a generation three hybrid alfalfa. It has medium size to large leaves, a high leaf concentration in the lower canopy, a leafy and dense overall canopy and fine stems.

With any new variety or technology, Staudinger cautioned farmers to conduct a small scale test on their own farms rather to take a great risk. Citing Dairyland's test plots on 350 farms in nine states and 13,849 data samples taken in 17 years, he assured farmers that a great deal of research is completed before a new product is brought to the market.

HarvXtra traits

In his remarks on the HarvXtra variety, Country Vision agronomist and certified crop adviser Habermann reported that its development began in April of 2007. By taking advantage of the wider cutting window, alfalfa growers could save $60 to $80 per acre in custom harvesting costs by making one less cutting per year, he observed.

Data from a large field on the Brunmeier containing both conventional and HarvXtra alfalfa showed advantages for the latter of 25 points on May 27 and 16 points on June 3 for relative feed quality, Habermann pointed out. There was also a 9 percent point advantage for the HarvExtra on neutral detergent fiber.

Manitowoc County Extension Service dairy and livestock agent Scott Gunderson observed that the use of the current Predicted Equivalent of Alfalfa Quality formula will no longer be valid with the new reduced lignin varieties.

Evolving cost structure

The cost for reduced low lignin alfalfa seed was not mentioned during the formal presentations at the Forage Council field day. To provide insight on that, the Wisconsin State Farmer pursued and received responses from Staudinger and Habermann.

Staudinger explained that setting a price structure will require a lot more data on yield, forage quality, feeding results, and any other economic advantages or disadvantages compared to other alfalfa technologies. He described that what is being seen and heard on those points as being of “a predictive nature” at the moment.

Regarding a pricing number, Staudinger indicated that Dairyland Seed is estimating a premium of somewhere between $25 and $75 for a 50-pound bag of non-coated seed in 2017. What that number will be will be based on the economic value for the farmer that is determined from the data now being collected, he promised.

For HarvXtra, Habermann suggested growers should expect a cost of “up to double the normal cost for a bag of alfalfa seed.” He noted the price range for conventional alfalfa varieties is quite great — $150 to $350 per bag.

Habermann mentioned a list price of $339 per bag of the reduced lignin alfalfa plus a substantial technology fee, which already includes $140 per bag for the Roundup Ready trait. Depending on the volume of purchase, buyers are also entitled to discounts of $30 to $120 per bag.

Rather than focusing on any cost per bag numbers, Habermann suggested that growers should always talk with their seed supplier about what alfalfa variety would be the best fit for the forage needed on the farm and for growing in particular fields. Both Habermann and Staudinger indicated that seed supplies for reduced lignin alfalfa seed are still quite limited.

Habermann can be reached by email to dhobbs5@hotmail.com. Staudinger’s email address is cstaudinger@dairylandseed.com.

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