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Improvements help alfalfa producers' performance soar

By Kylene Orebaugh

If the alfalfa producers from the early 1900s were to step into the shoes of a farmer in 2009, they would likely be completely lost. Technology, research and innovations in the alfalfa field have given today's farmers the upper hand.

Kent Martin, a crops and soils specialist at Kansas State University's Southwest Research and Extension Center, Garden City, Kan., said there are debates as to whether or not there have indeed been significant improvements in alfalfa in general.

"Most recognize that the crop improvements lag behind annual grain crop improvements. There are several reasons for this," Martin said. "First is that alfalfa is a perennial crop and thus improvements are related to survival and over wintering of the crop. This means it takes several years before evaluations and decisions can be made to improve alfalfa."

Martin also said disease and pest resistance has been a priority in many of the U.S. breeding programs rather than directly working on yield improvements.

"Another reason for the debate as to whether or not yields are increasing over time is because comparisons over time and locations have generally not considered stand life and diseases," Martin said. "When these factors are all evaluated carefully, it is clear that improvements have been made between 1940 and the present. In environments conducive to stand loss, multiple disease resistance in current cultivars shows a distinct advantage over older cultivars."

More specifically

Improving alfalfa yields relies on several things, Martin said.

"The improvement in alfalfa is a result of breeding programs improving cultivars for disease resistance and better planting and haying equipment," he said.

Without the seed, you won't get the plant, and through research alfalfa breeders found specifics that are somewhat similar to other grain crop improvement efforts--which could help strengthen alfalfa traits.

"Improvement in planting is similar to other crops in that equipment that provides better seed to soil contact and soil closure have improved early stand establishment in nearly all crops," Martin said. "Cultural practices in alfalfa harvest have improved over the years."

Continued improvement is needed, Martin said.

"The continual improvement of alfalfa is required because land space devoted to forage crop production is diminishing each year," he said. "Even if we do not consider the land growing cities are taking up, there is still fierce competition between crops for land."

And that can be a sticky situation since alfalfa is a demand driven crop, meaning producers will have to produce more tons of alfalfa on fewer acres to keep up with the demand.

Martin also said understanding harvest timing in combination with cutting height is also important with improving harvest yields.

"Cutting alfalfa at early growth stages depletes carbohydrate reserves in the roots and will decrease energy for plant recovery," he said. "Cutting height has been identified as an important factor that may need to vary depending on field conditions."

Crop stress also plays a role, and small changes with harvest equipment could help with the final yield counts.

"If the crop is stressed, a higher cutting height will preserve the stand, but some research indicates greater than 35 percent more forage harvested when the switch is made from a 4 inch cutting height to a 2 inch cutting height," Martin said. "This is at a cost of less than 1 percent crude protein, which is not enough to justify the yield loss."

As with planting equipment, improvements in haying equipment have given producers the ability to process hay more quickly and loose less forage during the haying process.

Insect and pest management is also part of the process.

"Weed and insect control in alfalfa have improved dramatically over the years," Martin said. "Differences in varieties is the best control tactic to overcome diseases, which has improved over the years."

Understanding water and alfalfa is vital, Martin said.

"Irrigation scheduling and a good understanding of water needs for alfalfa cannot be overlooked," he said. "It is very sensitive to water stress at harvest and plant recovery from harvest will depend on adequate soil water."

Other roles

Both Extension services and seed companies play significant roles in the improvement of alfalfa.

Martin said university research not only houses breeding programs to improve alfalfa cultivars, but also makes foundational improvements that can be used for alfalfa.

"These may include improvements to planting and haying equipment, cutting height, efficacy studies for chemical pesticides, seeding rates and planting dates, and irrigation improvements," he said.

As an Extension specialist, Martin sees first hand the role Extension plays.

"Extension has an important role in keeping the public up to date with information on strengths or weakness of alfalfa varieties, cultural practices to favor alfalfa production, and land preparation to favor long stand life and productivity," he said.

Seed companies also help promote and sell high quality seed that is fit for each geographical area.

"Some seed companies have also devoted as much effort toward the improvement of alfalfa as universities have," Martin said.

With devoted breeders, seed companies and universities, continued improvement in alfalfa can help strengthen the crop's future position in the agricultural world.

Kylene Orebaugh can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by e-mail at kscott@hpj.com.

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