Reduced-lignin alfalfa, considered easier for cattle to digest, is the focus of a study underway by a team of Kansas State University and University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture has awarded $500,000 so that a team from both schools will test growing conditions and conduct feeding trials with alfalfa.

After planting the reduced-lignin alfalfa in September, they’re expecting a first cutting in mid to late May 2020.

“All our team members are very excited to have this great opportunity to test potentially highly digestible alfalfa in the field and at the dairy research barns in both Kansas and Nebraska,” said Doohong Min, associate professor of forages at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

Led by Min, the team includes Krishna Jagadish and Barry Bradford of K-State, and Paul Konokoff from Nebraska.

Lignin gives strength to the alfalfa plant, but limits digestion in cows and other ruminant animals. Since animal performance is highly related to digestibility, Min said it’s vital to lower lignin content.

Large-scale production of both conventional and reduced-lignin alfalfa varieties in the early summer of 2020 will provide hay for dairy cattle feeding experiments at K-State and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) in the fall and winter of 2020-2021.

“Diets heavily reliant on alfalfa will be fed to evaluate production of milk, as well as energy recovery from diets, to assess both economic and biological efficiency of these hays,” said Bradford.

The study is geared to alfalfa producers, dairy nutritionists, and dairy producers to have a greater understanding of alfalfa, as well as enhanced production of high quality forages and overall farm profitability.

In addition to regional presentations and workshops, researchers will make what they’ve learned available through an online training resource.

“Participants will also learn updated standard practices for seed selection and forage management practices, have an improved understanding of factors affecting forage quality, and adopting changes in forage analysis and valuation,” said Min.

The earliest data should be ready by the end of next year or early 2021.

Though it may be a consideration for beef producers, reduced lignin alfalfa is fed mainly to dairy cows.

“Dairy cattle require higher nutritive value of forages, resulting in higher digestibility than beef cattle,” Min said, adding that low-lignin alfalfa may translate to higher milk production.

Reduced lignin alfalfa is available in genetically modified or non-GMO varieties. Few reduced-lignin alfalfa varieties have a RoundUp-ready trait.

Min’s teams will examine the response alfalfa varieties have when exposed to different drought conditions, using rainout shelters during various stages of maturity. The test is meant to simulate different conditions in major alfalfa growing reasons across the U.S.

They’ll take forage samples to determine dry matter yield, non-structural carbohydrates and nutrient values. The team hopes to help provide a more flexible and wider harvesting window by delaying harvest time while maintaining nutritive value after the alfalfa bloom. The goal is also to increase farm income by growing reduced-lignin alfalfa with higher nutritive values for the hay market and dairy industries.

The team will also work to gather information on milk yield and feed efficiency in highly-productive dairy cattle fed reduced-lignin alfalfa diets. They’ll be watching to see if the feed improves digestibility, milk fat yield and chewing behavior

Ultimately, Min said, these changes will not only improve the bottom line for alfalfa growers and dairies, but will also improve the sustainability.

Amy Hadachek can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.

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