February 28, 2002 | By: Laura Skillman

Alfalfa is the highest value forage crop in Kentucky and research efforts to improve yield, persistence, disease resistance and other character traits will likely ensure that it keeps that distinction.

Annually, the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture does test plots on various forages with alfalfa varieties being the largest number tested, said Jimmy Henning, University of Kentucky Extension forage specialist.

Henning discussed advances in alfalfa breeding at the annual alfalfa conference, Feb. 21 in Cave City.

Yield has been the number one trait breeders have been trying to optimize, he said. Looking at variety trial results, Henning said, some of the newer varieties are outdistancing older ones.

The next yield bump may come from hybrid alfalfas. They are not new but alfalfa is more difficult to hybridize. One of these hybrids has been seeded at the UK Research and Education Center, so useful Kentucky data should be available soon, he said.

Tolerance to wheel traffic from harvesting is another area that affects yield. Some breakthroughs have occurred in this area, Henning said, as the result of research into grazing tolerant varieties.

"Grazing tolerance is fairly new, and one of the encouraging things is that breeders are incorporating higher and higher levels of resistance and higher yields into these varieties," he said.

Breeders have been quick to add disease resistance into alfalfa lines. Research in Kentucky indicated that varieties need to be resistant to aphanomyces root rot. Breeders were quickly able to add that resistance to alfalfa lines, Henning said.

Varieties are always being looked at for color. Color is of particular interest in the cash hay market.

One of the biggest changes alfalfa producers may see in the near future could come with the development of Roundup Ready varieties.

UK is in negotiations to become an evaluation site for Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties in Kentucky, Henning said.

"We hope to work out the details and be able to get an early look at this product," he said. "Everything to this date looks good. The time line right now is for commercial release in 2004, but everything has to do with the regulatory process."

Research also continues into improved quality that can in turn translate into more milk for dairy farmers. Some of that research includes whole plant digestibility and higher leaf production.

Innovations in alfalfa will continue, Henning said.

With its high yield potential, ability to be manipulated to increase resistence to new or emerging pests and its ability to be genetically modified, alfalfa will continue to be a leading forage crop in Kentucky and aid in the transition from tobacco income in the state, Henning said.


Jimmy Henning, (859) 257-3144