Scientists develop drought-tolerant alfalfa

Jan 03, 2012

With much of the Southwest struggling with drought, many ranchers and dairy farmers are having difficulty finding enough hay for their livestock and making tough choices: pay up to twice as much as last year and ship it in from hundreds of miles away or do without and sell off some of their herd.

Farmers, ranchers and scientists say a perfect storm has turned hay into gold this year. The reduced forage on the range and led to an increase in demand for hay, including alfalfa and other grass mixes. At the same time, the drought and lower water allotments for agriculture reduced the supply and prices skyrocketed. Farmers as far as North Dakota and Minnesota have been feeling the effects.

Scientists at New Mexico State University are trying to help by using and traditional plant breeding practices to come up with more drought-tolerant varieties of alfalfa. The research is important because two-thirds of hay produced in the U.S. is grown in drought-prone areas of the Great Plains or the western U.S., said Ian Ray, the professor who runs NMSU's alfalfa breeding and genetics program.

Hay is the fourth most valuable crop grown in the United States with sales generating more than $7.5 billion. It's essential to everything from the billion-dollar dairy and beef industries to the wool market and even horse racing.

NMSU has been working on developing tougher alfalfa plants for more than three decades. Ray and his team, with help from the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma, have identified a series of DNA markers on alfalfa chromosomes that they believe play a key role in producing more alfalfa with less water.

It took several years to map the alfalfa genome and identify the markers that influence development of the plant's shoots and roots during drought. Then a couple of years of breeding were needed to incorporate those characteristics into alfalfa cultivars typically grown by farmers in New Mexico.

The work is more precise than classical plant breeding because the scientists were able to introduce only the drought tolerance characteristics they were after.

"DNA markers just help us do a much better job of uncovering, tracking and selecting for natural genetic variation for drought tolerance," Ray said.

The team just wrapped up its harvest of the first test crops grown with less water and the results are promising. All the plants had smaller yields because of the lack of water, but those with drought-tolerant produced 9 percent to 15 percent more than those without the markers.

One of the most promising cultivars being tested has a leafy canopy. More leaves means more nutritional value, Ray said.

"If what we're seeing is real, and it can be demonstrated that we see a yield advantage in multiple environments, then we've got a high forage quality population with enhanced drought resistance. That's the best of both worlds," he said.

Other universities, the federal government and large corporations like Monsanto Co. have been trying to develop alfalfa varieties that can withstand cold weather, salt-laden irrigation water and various insects and disease. But experts say the NMSU team is at the cutting edge when it comes to research on drought tolerance.

Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International in Nampa, Idaho, and a board member of the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance, said while drought is common in alfalfa country, this year's has been particularly devastating.

"What happened this year was really a tragedy, so that puts a lot more energy behind this kind of work," he said.

Leon Porter, a rancher from central New Mexico, said he had to sell about 140 head because the tufts of grass on his ranch failed to green up this year. Even the native yucca plants wilted and turned brown.

Porter and other ranchers are paying more than $300 a ton for hay and alfalfa grass mixes to get their herds through the winter. Last year, it cost about $165 a ton.

"The more producers that produce hay and the more efficiently they can produce it, the more affordable it makes it for us," he said.

Alfalfa farmers across New Mexico have been turning away customers since early fall. Arizona is about out, and a number of dairies in southeastern New Mexico have had to go to the Dakotas to get orders filled.

"Basically anywhere in the western United States, there's no hay to be found right now," said Justin Boswell, a crop consultant and executive director of the New Mexico Hay Association. Any scientific breakthrough would be welcome, he said.

Explore further: Free the seed: OSSI nurtures growing plants without patent barriers

4.5 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Undesirable weather slows down hay production

Jun 25, 2009

Spring weather has been less than favorable for harvesting hay, keeping many Indiana hay producers out of their fields, said Keith Johnson, Purdue Extension forage specialist.

Researchers test biological ways to control alfalfa pest

May 01, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Cornell researchers are spending time in the fields this spring collecting 20,000 alfalfa snout beetles. They need them to test ways to biologically control the pests, which devour alfalfa ...

New approach helps combat alfalfa snout beetle

Sep 15, 2011

The destructive alfalfa snout beetle (ASB) is under seige on northern New York farms, thanks to field research led by Cornell scientists. Their strategy includes using ASB-resistant varieties of alfalfa and ...

Ag experts issue alfalfa weevil warming

Apr 11, 2007

U.S. agricultural experts expect the past several years of mild winters to increase the populations of many insect species, including alfalfa weevils.

University of Missouri completes first drought simulator

Aug 18, 2011

Historically, droughts have had devastating effects on agriculture, causing famine and increasing consumer food costs. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural ...

Recommended for you

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.