Not Your Daddy’s Forages

August 19, 2015 11:29 AM

Ongoing advances in dairy cattle genetics have been a bit of a double-edged sword for today’s dairy farmers.
On one hand, improved genetics have boosted milk production per cow to heights undreamed of 50 years ago. At the same time, better genetics have put producers under the gun to make sure they’re delivering the kind of feed rations that will allow these high-producing animals to live up to their genetic potential.

Continuing developments in forage genetics hold the potential to help producers meet this challenge head-on.

“We’re just at the threshold of some astounding improvements in efficiencies and production,” says Mark Boggess, director of USDA’s U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Wis. “It’s an exciting time to be involved with forages.”

The introduction of reduced-lignin alfalfa varieties to the marketplace offers an example of the kind of changes that are on the horizon. Developed through traditional and genetically-modified breeding techniques, these varieties stand to reduce lignin content in alfalfa by 7% to18%.

Not only will that likely improve digestibility in rations and lead to higher milk production, it will also give producers more flexibility in harvest scheduling, which in turn promises to increase yields and improve the life of stands. “Overall, these new varieties will provide great benefits for farmers,” says Dan Undersander, forage agronomist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension.  

Reduced-lignin alfalfa just scratches the surface of what lies in store. Researchers and companies continue to work on other traits that will significantly boost yields, improve alfalfa digestibility and lead to better protein quality in alfalfa plants and better animal protein retention on the nutrition side.

Also on the way are improved salt-tolerant and drought-tolerant alfalfa varieties that will enable growers to extend the areas where the crop can be grown under irrigation. Likewise, new disease- and insect-resistance packages will offer protection from nematodes, anthracnose and other problems.

Similar progress in forage grasses can be expected. “We’ve seen a lot of changes in recent years in grass varieties with improved disease resistance, digestibility and yields, whether it’s in grass planted alone or in a mixture with alfalfa, and the interest is just going to continue to grow,” Undersander says.
With corn silage, producers can expect yields for brown midrib varieties to continue trending upward. Also, producers can be on the look out for new types of corn (think leafy corn, tropical corn and others) to find their way into production schemes.

Other corn traits that stand to offer more environmental friendliness, better ground cover, more efficient nutrient capture, improved water utilization and more are also getting plenty of attention from researchers and companies.

As exciting as all of these developments are, their arrival will also have ongoing challenges for dairy producers and forage growers.

“My advice to producers is to do your homework now,” Boggess explains. "Start to understand what some of these traits are, why they are important and what their value might be to your operation."
“Then, look for varieties and companies that support those traits and can add value to your operation,” he adds.

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