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Lower lignin alfalfa yields good results

Progressive Forage Writer Carrie Veselka Published on 29 December 2016
Feld of lower lignin alfalfa from eastern Washington

The hay production industry received new contenders in 2014 when Alforex Seeds debuted the first conventionally bred lower lignin alfalfa variety at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin.

Forage Genetics International also introduced a genetically enhanced lower lignin variety at the show – HarvXtra.

The 2016 growing season marks the first year the fully established lower lignin stands are ready to show what they’re capable of. Several dairies and commercial hay growers have tested out the conventionally bred variety and shared their experiences with us.

Lower lignin alfalfa features a softer stem and a higher leaf-to-stem ratio, meaning an increase in digestibility and feed quality that should improve animal performance, whether the hay is fed on dairy or beef operations.

Marty Reps from the Elba Cooperative Creamery in Winona County, Minnesota, says better quality and nutrition were two main goals for producers when they tried out the lower lignin varieties. “That’s probably the biggest push,” Reps says. “Guys are just looking for an alfalfa that’s going to be healthier for the animal.”

Loren Pratt, a commercial hay grower in Maricopa, Arizona, planted a 6-acre test plot. “I was looking for something that would test for dairy quality for a longer period of time,” Pratt says. “I was comparing it to stuff that I had planted alongside of it, so everything was first year, and it was the number-two yield out of the three varieties I was comparing. I thought it would lie down on me, but it stood up really well.”

Pratt found the feed value of the low lignin variety lessened slightly as the summer wore on, although it tested at the highest feed value for the first five cuttings.

Peter Braun, from Woodcrest Dairy in Lisbon, New York, was aiming for higher digestibility and something to keep his grain bill down. He planted roughly 200 acres in 2015. So far, planting lower lignin alfalfa, he says, has been the right choice. “It was about 10 percent more digestible,” Braun says. “I haven’t really had a chance to evaluate it in the dairy yet.”

Jeff Burkehardt, a commercial grower in Vale, Oregon, was looking for a variety that would consistently test well in order to keep dairies supplied with high-end hay while still reaching the tonnages he needs to be profitable, and so far his lower lignin variety is his top performer.

“We test every field every cutting, and consistently the low-lignin hays are just a hair better in tests,” Burkehardt says. He did not receive the same dynamic results as Braun did, but when comparing it against the other high-end varieties, the lower lignin variety outperformed its competitors.

Reps says that producers growing the lower lignin variety need to be patient in waiting for good performance. “To be honest, I would say the first year is going to be very comparable. As far as the yield, you’re going to see it relatively the same.

The second year is where you’re going to see it and where we have seen the increase in yield,” Reps says. “I don’t have an exact number as far as tons per acre because we are still relatively new on it, but as far as what we’ve seen and what guys have said, whether they’re putting it in a bag, a bunk or a silo, guys have definitely seen an increase in yield climbing with the second year of the growing season.”

Burkehardt says he also experimented with fertilizer on some of his test plots and found that the lower lignin alfalfa responded better to different kinds of management than some of the other varieties he worked with.

His best lower lignin plot produced just over 12 tons over the course of the season, and his lowest performer produced 11 tons, compared with his other varieties that closed at 10.5 or 11 tons per year.

“The proof is in the milk on the other end. That’s who I’m trying to keep happy,” Burkehardt says. “The higher we can keep the digestibility numbers, the better deal.” Burkehardt says the results from his first established year are good enough for him to plant more of it. “It’s beautiful stuff.

No issues as far as living up to what it’s touted to be,” he says. “I’ll keep planting it, and I’ll keep planting whatever else is new that comes out too.”

This decision is not an easy one to make for some producers, due to the lower lignin seed costing nearly twice as much as conventional varieties. “Seven dollars a pound versus 3 dollars and 25 cents a pound, we’re talking about a 70,000-dollar difference, and with the price of hay the way it is, I just can’t do that,” Pratt says, though if the price of seed was closer to conventional varieties, he says he would definitely plant more.

“I think it’s a good variety. It yields well in this area, and the feed value is certainly phenomenal in the early cuttings. It’s even better than anything else that we tested, almost by 20 points in feed value, so it’s a good variety. It’s just the economics of it that didn’t work.”

Other producers disagree, saying the high cost of seed is rendered inconsequential when compared with the return on investment of high-quality hay.

“From my standpoint, there’s so much more expense in the preparation of the seeding and the harvesting and the storage and everything else, that the difference in the seed was certainly not insignificant but relatively small by the time you’ve factored out everything else as well,” Braun says. “If you were just looking at the seed versus the seed, then yes, it’s significant, but if you’re looking at seed plus fertilizer plus labor plus everything else, then the difference in the total cost of establishing the seeding certainly becomes less significant.”

Burkehardt says the cost of the seed is one of the least important factors in choosing which variety to plant. Even if the seed for high-end varieties like lower lignin is substantially higher and adds up to a difference of $100 more per acre, the new variety can easily redeem the cost.

Even in a year like 2016 where hay prices are low (even down to $100 a ton), all it would take is an extra ton of hay to make up for the seed cost difference, which, even in a bad growing year, is easily achieved with high-producing, high-end varieties like lower lignin.

“The more money you spend on seed, the better the investment is because you can get that back out in a hurry, and the better the seed, the better the stand life and disease resistance and the rest of it,” Burkehardt says. “So the cost of the seed is the most minimal part of raising alfalfa that there is.”

Burkehardt added that if producers rotated every five years, the seed would more than pay for itself, and if they had a longer rotation period of 10 or even 12 years, in the end, the cost would barely matter. “That’s not just low lignin, that’s any of the other good varieties.”

Lower lignin alfalfa requires no special consideration from growers. According to several growers, it establishes well, doesn’t winterkill and fits in smoothly to a preestablished cutting schedule.  end mark

PHOTO: This field of lower lignin alfalfa from eastern Washington looks the same as any healthy alfalfa field. Photo by Audrey Schmitz.

Carrie Veselka
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