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WAUPACA – Although it’s an important crop for most Wisconsin dairy farmers, on many farms alfalfa takes a backseat to corn and soybeans.

The alfalfa team at Legacy Seeds is out to change that, according to Dave Robison, the company’s forage and cover crop manager. “Alfalfa costs less than corn and is more profitable to the farmer,” he stated.

Robison noted that In 2016, the average yield in Wisconsin was 3.2 tons per acre. “With the proper varieties and better planting protocols we can significantly increase that yield and make alfalfa even more profitable,” he stressed.

“I like the direction our company is taking,” he said. “When you’re talking about the farmer’s livelihood, the variety has to be right. With the research currently being done by Olivia Steinmetz and Dave Huset, we expect to see varieties with even more persistence, greater digestibility, improved disease resistance and higher yields.”

He stressed that Legacy has been the industry’s only independent alfalfa breeder for the past six year. “Our highly digestible (HD) alfalfa provides a wider harvest window, along with, on average, approximately 110 percent higher milk production than our top competitor’s varieties.”

Developing varieties

David Huset, the company’s director of forage research, who has been breeding high-yielding alfalfa varieties for more than 25 years, says it takes time to develop superior varieties.

“The plants are started in the greenhouse here at our research center, and then transplanted in the outdoor plots,” he related. “They’re transplanted in grids with six-inch centers, and I have about 700 plants in each block, which basically is a variety.”

He explained that because alfalfa is a family, there are different sized plants. “It’s not like a corn hybrid where every plant is identical.”

Huset cuts the plants with a sickle mower back to a length of 1.5 inches to check regrowth. Pointing to the plants in the plot around him, he said, “What we’re seeing here is nine days of regrowth. Some of what we’re seeing is how fast they regrow, not necessarily telling use how good the plants are, because other plants can start back a little slower, and in the end they will be just as good.

The current plants will be dug next spring after two winters in the plots. “When I come back to dig them, if they’re looking healthy, I dig them and send them out to Idaho. If one of those that are on my list that had high yield and high quality, but I see that one side of the plant is dying due to severe winter injury, it gets thrown out,” he emphasized.

More testing

"In the end, I’ll send 80 to 100 plants to Idaho,” he noted. “The crew there will put the plants in cages with bees, and we’ll get around five pounds of seed from each cage. The next fall, they’ll send a pound of see to me and hold back the other four pounds.”

Huset takes that pound of seed and plants it in fields throughout the state. “We’ll evaluate how it yields over four years,” he said. “We’ll also evaluate it for quality, persistence and everything else that’s important to the farmer.”

If it proves to be a superior product, the Idaho test team will take the other four pounds and plant a foundation field at a rate of one pound per acres. “From that they will harvest 500 to 2,000 pounds of seed, depending on the variety, and how many acres are actually planted,” he explained. “This will be the foundation for the seed that will last the lifetime of the variety.”

Out of that approximately 2,000 pounds, 500 pounds will be used to seed a larger field the following year that will be the production field. “The seed that comes off that field, will be the seed that goes to the farmer,” Huset said.

Non GMO focus

“We’re focused on conventional, non GMO, breeding to accomplish our goal of better yield, quality, persistence, and making alfalfa more adaptable to more land because a lot of the best land goes to corn,” said Legacy Alfalfa team member Mike Velde.

“Our competition is corn silage,” he said. “In talking with dairymen, they would like to feed more alfalfa but they want to get consistent quality, and an adequate supply every year. We have to be able to increase the levels of reliable uniform high quality yield for first, second and third cutting.”

“My goal is to find the best plants in the family and send them out for quality evaluation,” Huset said. Out of those 700 plants, I’ll end up with maybe 80 to 100 plants that are high in yield and quality.”

“From beginning to end, it’s a 7- or 8-year process, including years of research, testing and actual seed production,” he said. “On average only 20 to 30 percent of the plants will become varieties.”

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