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'I've been waiting a long time for low-lignin alfalfa,' Latham Hi-Tech Seeds forage products manager Corey Catt told attendees at the 2016 forage day sponsored by the Calumet County Forage Council.

Now being produced for at least three commercial suppliers but with differing percentages in the amount of lignin reduction, seed supply is still very limited, Catt reported. Latham is selling the HarvXtra 400 HVXRR (Roundup Ready) brand, which was grown as early as 2009 in the University of Wisconsin research plot at Arlington.

The $590 per bag selling price for the 'low inventory' of that seed for planting in 2016 is 'a high cost that provides good value,' Catt remarked. Based on extensive research, he suggested that the economic benefits of the traits compared to conventional alfalfa varieties could top $2,000 per acre over the span of a four-year stand in addition to increased milk production by dairy cows.

Beneficial traits

With its average of 12 to 15 percent less lignin, a somewhat greater reduction than the other new varieties are promising, there are corresponding increases of 12 to 15 percent in the digestibility of the neutral detergent fiber and in the relative forage quality being provided by the 400 HVXRR compared to conventional alfalfa varieties, Catt said.

Feeding research shows that every 1 percent increase in the digestibility of neutral detergent fiber boosts a dairy cow's daily dry matter intake by 037 pound, Catt reported. He said this increases the average milk production by 0.55 pound per day.

All fiber digests either quickly, slowly or not at all, Catt said. The fiber will vary from year to year and cut to cut due to the weather.

Wider harvest window

Another appealing trait of low lignin is the extension of the harvest window, thereby adding to the yields per cut while not sacrificing feed quality, Catt said. The research shows that the window can be extended by about seven days on that point. 

What this means, and what has frequently been shown in research plots, is that alfalfa growers can harvest three crops per year instead of the typical four with a good chance of having a higher total per acre yield for the year such as 0.77 and 0.88 ton dry matter increases in two years at a plot near Lancaster, Catt indicated. He also noted that the harvesting costs for alfalfa are about $50 per acre.

For the growers who sell alfalfa hay, a reduction of 12 to 15 percent in the lignin should add about $25 to $35 per ton to the sales value, Catt predicted. As a final point, he noted that greater digestion of fiber by dairy cows would slightly reduce the amount of manure that they excrete.

Catt views the development of low lignin alfalfa as being similar to other special traits which have been introduced in recent decades. He listed large plant roots, leafhopper resistance, tolerance for diseases such as aphanomyces and the Roundup Ready trait, which allows for weed control within alfalfa stands. A new race of aphanomyces now needs attention, he added.

Establishing alfalfa

'I'm big on seed treatments,' Catt said. He cited the typical mortality rate of 50 to 70 percent within two years for newly established alfalfa plants.

Latham's approach to this challenge is to apply a seed treatment with seven elements compared to the industry's standard of two, Catt reported. The company's seed treatment product includes an antifungal agent along with the micronutrient zinc, which he described as being comparable to colostrum for the health of a dairy calf.

Research with that seed treatment leads to an initial alfalfa stand of about 4.588 million live plants from 7.245 million seeds compared to 3.6 million live plants from 11.25 million seeds with conventional alfalfa seed treatments.

Dual-purpose corn hybrid

Latham is also promoting dual purpose corn hybrids for which its lineup runs from 78 to 113-day maturities, Catt pointed out. One of the difficulties corn growers have is keeping up with the genetic turnover that occurs about every two years.

Growers of corn which is harvested for silage or high-moisture shelled corn should be looking for hybrids with high amounts of digestible fiber and kernels which have soft starch so more of both of them will be digested by dairy cows, Catt advised. He also noted that once corn silage has been in storage for at least 244 days it reaches its high point for starch digestibility of the kernels.

To check for how soft or hard the starch is, conduct the light test, Catt suggested. A kernel which doesn't allow the light to shine through suggests that its starch is soft while one which allows the light through is hard, he explained. Due to pollination from adjacent corn fields, kernels on the same ear of corn could differ in starch softness or hardness.

Regarding fiber and lignin in corn forage, Catt reported that high plant populations (36,000 to 40,000 per acre) result in a higher portion of lignin, which makes the silage less digestible. He is tracking research on 12-inch corn rows, which provide more space per corn plant and have been increasing yields and reducing lignin percentages at up to 40,000 plants per acre.

Corn treatments

Contrary to research findings by other agronomists, Catt endorses the application of a fungicide such as Headline to corn which is infected with one or more plant diseases. For a silage harvest, he cited instances of per acre yield increases of up to three tons attributed to the fungicide treatments.

Catt has also found favorable responses to corn yields with applications of products containing carbons and sugars. He recommends tissue testing to identify the need for particular nutrients and spot applications of fertilizer. He also warned that the application of dicamba herbicide could increase the lignin content in corn if cool and wet weather follow the application.

Regarding corn yields, Catt said that the controlling factors — in percentages descending from 27 to 4 — are weather, nitrogen supply, hybrid, previous crop, plant population, tillage method and application of a growth regulator.

General observations

Rather than relying fully on research plots conducted elsewhere, Catt asks farmers to conduct their own on-farm trials to evaluate product traits and performance. He also invites them to share their experiences and to offer ideas to suppliers.

In line with the goal of providing healthy milk, meat, and eggs to consumers by relying on natural processes as much as possible, Catt recommended the book '40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World' by Howard Buffett, who is the son of Warren Buffett and a farmer in Nebraska.

Based at Maiden Rock in western Wisconsin, Catt represents a family-owned company headquartered in Alexander, IA (www.lathamseeds.com).

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