Forage scientist Steve Norberg will lead a two-year, $250,000 effort to discover the genes behind better alfalfa, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
“Our state is known for its alfalfa,” said Norberg, Washington State University Extension Specialist in animal feeds and forage. “We’re aiming to make Washington’s excellent alfalfa even better.”
An important part of the state’s $539 million hay industry, alfalfa is grown on more than 400,000 acres throughout Washington. Produced most intensively in the irrigated Columbia River Basin, alfalfa is exported around the world, notably to China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where demand has been rising steadily in recent years.
Grown for three to five years at a time without tillage, alfalfa improves the soil, adding nutrients, organic matter and structure while eliminating disease. A nutritious feed that is high in protein, alfalfa improves the soil and provides habitat for wildlife.
Dairies are major customers of alfalfa hay, and dairy cows consume large quantities of alfalfa-fortified feed.
“We’re looking for genes that can be bred into traditional alfalfa varieties, making them more digestible,” said Norberg. “”Dairy cows need to eat a lot to produce milk, and less fiber means more nutrition and less waste.”
Using the university’s germplasm repository, scientists are studying 150 alfalfa varieties from around the world, along with 50 from local commercial varieties.
Researchers will plant them next spring at Prosser, Wash., La Grande, Ore., and Twin Falls, Idaho. Next summer, they’ll sample plants and hay for genetic markers that denote lower fiber and better digestibility.
“Once we find promising gene markers, we’ll share that with commercial breeders, so they can start selecting for those traits,” Norberg said. “Our discoveries will speed up improvement in alfalfa seed programs, worldwide.”
Joining in the project are WSU faculty members Don Llewellyn and Steven Fransen; USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist Long-Xi Yu; University of Idaho specialist Glenn Shewmaker; Oregon State University forage specialist Guojie Wang; and University of Wisconsin scientist Dave Combs.