USDA’s decision in late January to deregulate Roundup Ready alfalfa has dairy producers and other alfalfa growers evaluating just how, if at all, the revolutionary technology might work into their alfalfa weed-control strategy.
Around 40 varieties of Roundup Ready alfalfa will be available for planting in most areas of the country this spring, according to Matt Fanta, director of marketing for Forage Genetics International, Inc. (FGI). Along with Monsanto Company, FGI was a codeveloper of Roundup Ready alfalfa technology. "Most of the major corn and soybean companies, along with several companies that specialize in alfalfa and other small forage seed, will have products on the market," Fanta says.
He points out that a federal district court’s 2007 decision to ban the planting and sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed until USDA completed an environmental impact statement will have no effect on the quality of the seed being marketed this spring.
"When the injunction went into effect, it allowed the acres that were already in the ground to stay in the ground. So seed companies were harvesting those acres in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and storing the seed under ideal conditions," Fanta says.
Individual seed companies will establish the prices for their own varieties, Fanta says. He expects that in most cases growers will find the cost of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed to be competitive with the cost of premium conventional alfalfa seed.
One caveat: Growers will pay Monsanto’s technology fee on each bag of seed. Growers east of the Rocky Mountains will pay $125 per 50-lb. bag. West of the Rockies, the fee will amount to $150 per bag.
Bruce Anderson, forage specialist with University of Nebraska Extension, says growers will need to assess Roundup Ready seed from the standpoint of both opportunity and risk. "It’s not a panacea that’s going to solve all your problems," he says.
On the upside, Anderson notes that Roundup Ready alfalfa offers growers a good option for weed control during establishment, when new alfalfa seedlings are most sensitive to competition. "Roundup has been shown to cause less crop injury than the other herbicides labeled for
establishment," he says.
In some established stands, Roundup might also offer growers a good option for controlling midsummer grassy weeds, troublesome weeds where other herbicide options are limited (waterhemp, nutgrass, thistles, dandelions and curly dock) and winter annuals, especially after alfalfa green-up in the spring, when other herbicides are likely to cause crop injury.
Anderson reminds growers that weed control in alfalfa often fails to increase total yields. "What it does increase is the percentage of the yield that comes from alfalfa," he says. He also points to questions about whether Roundup Ready technology will hasten the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds under certain conditions or lead to yield drag problems.
"Developers of the trait claim that it is only in varieties with elite germplasm with no yield drag," he says. "But independent field testing has been limited due to the restrictions and regulations that have been in place for the past several years. More research is needed."
Dairy producer Rick Burkhamer of Richland Center, Wis., planted 100 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa in the spring of 2007. He was impressed enough that he plans to plant all of his alfalfa acres with Roundup Ready seed.
"We spent less on herbicides and our yields were better, and not just during the establishment year," he says. "We’re at the point in our rotation where we should be taking that first planting out this coming fall. But we’re thinking about leaving it in for another year."
With the technology fee, Burkhamer figures he’ll pay 50% more for Roundup Ready seed than he would for conventional alfalfa varieties. "When you figure the savings on herbicides and the additional yields, it more than covers the additional cost of the seed," he says.
Mark Watte of Watte Bros. Dairy in Tulare, Calif., planted 200 acres of Roundup Ready alfalfa in the fall of 2006. His goal was to control nutgrass. "Nutgrass can completely take over areas of some fields," says Watte, who typically devotes 800 acres to alfalfa production annually.
Watte’s game plan is to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa in fields where nutgrass has historically been a problem. "From a production standpoint, there really isn’t any difference between Roundup Ready and good conventional varieties," he says. "So if you’re not dealing with a specific weed problem that can’t be controlled any other way, why take on the additional seed expense?"