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Demand high tonnage and high quality from alfalfa

Mick Miller for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 June 2019
28 day schedule after fourth cut

Historically, alfalfa growers have had to choose between high-quality or high-tonnage forage. They’ve had to make difficult choices between quality and quantity.

But new alfalfa varieties with built-in trait technology offer more options and flexibility to make those choices easier and potentially more profitable.

What is reduced-lignin alfalfa?

You may have heard of, or even tried, alfalfa marketed as containing reduced lignin. And while there are reduced-lignin varieties that have been developed using conventional breeding methods, varieties with true genetically engineered (GE) reduced-lignin trait technology have only been available for the past several years. The trait helps optimize alfalfa quality compared to conventional alfalfa at the same maturity by reducing the amount of lignin and changing its composition in the plant’s cell walls.

How does this trait help your operation?

Adding GE reduced-lignin alfalfa to your operation offers several benefits that can help boost your profitability potential. Here’s how it can enable greater harvest flexibility, balanced nutrition and increased stand longevity.

Harvest flexibility

To maximize quality and quantity with conventional alfalfa varieties, you’re locked into an average 28-day cutting window. GE reduced-lignin technology allows you to extend that window up to 10 days without sacrificing quality. That essentially gives you more options to navigate bad weather or logistical challenges that may come up during the season.

By extending that cutting window, you also increase your overall yield potential. On average, alfalfa grows an inch per day, and every inch of growth per acre equals about 125 pounds of dry matter yield. By delaying harvest for up to 10 days when you plant a GE reduced-lignin alfalfa, it is not unreasonable to see nearly a half-ton-per-acre yield increase while maintaining forage digestibility similar to conventional alfalfa harvested 10 days earlier. A secondary benefit of delaying harvest is: You may be able to eliminate one cutting from your typical harvest schedule. That saves on operating costs and improves stand persistence, which could extend the life of the stand.

If you decide you’d like to maintain that 28-day cutting window, you’re more likely to see a boost in forage digestibility with GE reduced-lignin varieties. Compared to conventionally bred alfalfa at the same maturity, data shows a 17% increase, on average, in neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFD) at this 28-day cutting interval.

Balanced nutrition

Alfalfa is a highly digestible forage that is also an excellent protein source for cattle. Feeding a GE reduced-lignin alfalfa variety can provide for a potentially significant return on your investment. GE reduced-lignin alfalfa has an improved baseline level of digestibility over conventional alfalfa, allowing you to customize your ration based on your herd’s nutritional needs. Because of its higher digestibility, growing cattle can eat more feed, which may result in higher average daily weight gain. You may also see optimal feed efficiency and less waste by adding the traited alfalfa to your ration.

38-day schedule after a third cut regrowth

Or you may find that your operation needs more tons of good-to-average-quality alfalfa for feeding cow-calves or raising heifers. GE reduced-lignin alfalfa cut on a delayed harvest schedule can provide a large quantity of good-quality hay. The flexibility for harvest and feeding options are practically endless.

In the transition years, when adding GE reduced-lignin alfalfa to your conventional alfalfa acres, you may choose to harvest all the alfalfa on the same schedule. If you’re making baled hay, storage is easy to separate. If you’re making haylage, it is ideal to store the reduced-lignin forage separately for use with growing or lactating cattle. Another alternative for storing haylage is to layer the GE reduced-lignin and conventional alfalfas in the same bunker pile to increase the overall forage quality. When blending, it’s important to test every lot of alfalfa to ensure your ration meets your herd’s nutritional needs.

The cost per head per day can be significantly reduced when feeding a highly digestible forage. When you feed a lower-quality forage, intake will be suppressed, limiting the amount of total nutrients cattle can eat. That increases the cost per head per day or reduces the average daily gain. In this case, you may need to add supplements to the diet, whether it’s mineral or cake, to meet nutritional requirements. When feeding high-quality, highly digestible forage, there is minimal need for supplements, lowering the overall feed cost.

Increased stand longevity

As I previously mentioned, extending the cutting window could allow you to eliminate a cutting each season or at least maximize the available growing season. Whenever alfalfa can be cut later than 30-day intervals, stand persistence and the life of your stand can increase, and your yield potential may improve year after year. Alfalfa tends to overwinter better when it is allowed to recover after cutting because it tends to have more root-stored carbohydrates to initiate spring growth. That vigorous early season growth also increases tolerance to stress, including diseases and pests, further protecting yield potential.

Is reduced-lignin alfalfa a good fit for you?

The first question I ask farmers who are considering this technology is, “What is your end goal? Is it higher-quality forage? Is it more tonnage? Is it both?” If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then I would recommend GE reduced-lignin alfalfa as an option for you. Every producer I work with finds a different way to benefit from its flexibility. It’s a product that fits really well in almost every type of situation.

If you’re not planting GE alfalfa right now but are interested in seeing how it could make a difference in your operation, I recommend trying it on some of your acres before making a complete switch from conventional to traited varieties. You can experiment with your harvest schedules and see how that affects your forage quality and quantity. You also need to consider whether the alfalfa variety’s genetic package is well adapted to your environment. Work with your local seed dealer to talk through different seed options to find out what will work best for your acres.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Shows a 28-day schedule after a fourth cut

PHOTO 2: 38-day schedule after a third cut (right) regrowth. Photos courtesy of Forage Genetics International.

Mick Miller is an alfalfa and forage specialist with WinField United. Email Mick Miller.