Hay producers show interest in low lignin alfalfa varieties

OLDS, Alta. — Roundup Ready alfalfa may not hold much interest for prairie livestock producers, who grow most of their alfalfa with a grass-hay mix that Roundup would kill.


However, low lignin alfalfa has tweaked their interest.


Doug Wray, chair of the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association, said low lignin alfalfa could allow hay producers to grow their alfalfa longer in the field to increase yield without lowering quality. In pastures, a low lignin alfalfa could mean higher weight gains for livestock.


“If I can get two and a quarter pounds a day gain on yearlings on grass, I can make money on grass,” Wray told a recent association meeting.


“That’s a business plan that works.”


Roundup Ready alfalfa has been approved for use in Canada, and five varieties are registered. Forage Genetics International, which holds the rights to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties in Canada, has indicated it is interested in selling the seed in Ontario and Quebec this spring.


“The uptake for traits like low lignin are much more interesting because it is a feed quality issue,” said Wray.


“In beef production, most of the alfalfa is in a grass mixture so Roundup Ready is a non-starter.”


However, there was no consensus among hay and cattle producers at the conference about its benefits.


“It’s one of those things. We’ve got GMO canola on our land, GMO corn and soybeans. There are lots of GMOs on the landscape and lots of producers are making money growing it,” said Wray.


Kurt Shmon of Imperial Seeds in Winnipeg said Roundup Ready alfalfa would dramatically affect his forage seed business.


He told the meeting that seed sales to Europe would be eliminated for Canadian companies because European countries strongly oppose GM crops.


“Europe has zero tolerance. We have the opportunity to service a lot of GE sensitive zones. We won’t have access to all markets,” said Shmon, whose company produces forage and turf seed across Western Canada.


“We have Americans approaching Canadians because they can no longer grow pure seed.”


Shmon said he is concerned bees would spread the gene to traditional alfalfa plants and other legumes such as birdsfoot trefoil.


Roundup Ready alfalfa seed sales were halted temporarily in the United States because of a lawsuit but have now resumed.


Dave Gentry, president of the Illinois Forage and Grasslands Council, said Roundup Ready alfalfa is gaining popularity with hay producers in his area. More than 50 percent of his sales are with Roundup Ready varieties. 


A lot of his sales are to urban horse owners, who want good quality hay and don’t care about the variety. The addition of low lignin traits will allow producers to producer more tonnes of high quality hay on fewer acres, he added.


“This will cause significant changes,” he said.


“We can produce more on fewer acres. It will let alfalfa growers cut it a week later to gain tons without losing quality.”


Plans to initially introduce Roundup Ready alfalfa only in Eastern Canada don’t ease his concerns that the alfalfa won’t make it to the Prairies.


“In my mind, the amount it will benefit are so far and few. There are a lot of people opposed to it beside the granola crunchers.”


Jack Kyle with Ontario Agriculture said limiting sales to Eastern Canada won’t stop producers from bringing it to other areas of the country.


“How do you regulate against people who don’t follow the rules.”


Kyle said it’s not a matter of choosing between Roundup Ready or low lignin because both are genetically modified and opposed by some countries. He estimated that low lignin alfalfa will be a stacked trait in Roundup Ready alfalfa in Canada in three to five years.


Wray said the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association has not taken a stand on the issue because of the strong opinions of opponents and proponents. However, it hopes European countries will modify their zero GM tolerance level.


“This is a big issue that is not going away.”

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