WHAT IF the crop isn't really glyphosate tolerant when the sprayer is full of Roundup and ready to go? Or what if the hay is glyphosate tolerant and the export market doesn't want it?

Two companies, Strategic Diagnostics, Newark, DE, and EnviroLogix, Portland, ME, recently began marketing field-friendly test kits capable of detecting the presence of the Roundup Ready genetic trait in alfalfa seed, plant material and hay. Similar kits have been available for some time to test other Roundup Ready crops.

Roundup Ready alfalfa

Roundup Ready alfalfa seed received approval for sale in the U.S. in June 2005. It is the first perennial crop to be released with the glyphosate-tolerant genetic trait. A limited amount of the new seed was available last year, and even more producers are expected to be able to obtain seed during the 2006 season.

Roundup Ready alfalfa is of particular interest to producers who may be facing problems from persistent, difficult-to-control weeds in their hay fields. Having the ability to spray the crop with Roundup can lead to an alfalfa stand that is stronger and denser because the plants don't have to compete with weeds during early growth stages, according to University of Nebraska weed scientist Robert Wilson. Commercial hay producers who target dairy and horse hay markets, where weed-free hay claims a premium price, have shown particular interest in the new alfalfa.

Export markets

However, some hay producers targeting specific export customers have stated that they do not want the Roundup Ready genetic trait in their hay. Tim Woodward, Washington State University extension agronomist, says some hay producers in the Pacific Northwest who supply export customers in Japan are hearing a zero-tolerance level for Roundup Ready hay. He cites figures showing that as much as 50% of the alfalfa produced in the Columbia Basin and almost all of the timothy hay produced in the region is exported. An estimated 80% or more of Washington's Columbia Basin hay growers export at least one of their hay harvests per year. Some growers have staked their business on the export market.

Woodward notes that export customer demand could change, but in the meantime a tool such as the Roundup Ready test kits can help hay growers prove that they are indeed supplying Roundup Ready-free hay. “If a grower or exporter has a positive test for the adventitious [accidental] presence of the Roundup Ready gene in his hay, it would indicate to him that he should not send it over to Japan,” Woodward explains.

The Washington State Hay Growers Association has asked Monsanto and Forage Genetics, the companies that are supplying the Roundup Ready alfalfa genetic technology to U.S. seed companies, not to release Roundup Ready alfalfa seed for sale in the state of Washington until export customers have demonstrated a better acceptance of genetically modified hay.

Woodward has been collaborating with Dan Putnam, University of California extension forage specialist, and Peter Reisen from Forage Genetics International on research to test the reliability of test kits in determining the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in haystacks. Woodward says preliminary results of the research indicate that when using standard methods for sampling haystacks for forage quality (core sampling 20 random bales in each haystack), the kits reliably detect the presence of the Roundup Ready trait when presence of the trait is 5% or more. He says if a test kit shows a hay sample is negative for the presence of the trait, the Japanese government would consider it to be non-genetically modified. However, the customer may determine a different tolerance level.

Simple test

It takes 5 to 10 minutes to test hay in the field, says Tim Lawruk, product manager, Strategic Diagnostics. The tester first takes a small sample from the core of a hay bale and grinds it up in a small grinding mill. He adds water to the ground sample, shakes the sample and transfers a small amount of the extract to a tube. Finally, he inserts a dipstick into the tube and waits for test results to appear on the dipstick. Results will show if the hay sample has greater than 5% Roundup Ready genetic material.

One Strategic Diagnostics test kit contains enough supplies to conduct 100 tests. The list price is $320, or around $3 per sample, Lawruk says. The EnviroLogix QuickStix Kits for Roundup Ready Alfalfa Hay are similar but can be run on cored samples with or without grinding to detect the presence of the protein expressed by Roundup Ready alfalfa. EnviroLogix offers kits in two sizes: a comparably priced 100-test kit and a field-friendly 10-strip kit.

Alfalfa producers also can use the test kits to test leaf clippings when the alfalfa is growing in the field. Lawruk points out the test could help prevent a potentially expensive mistake if there is confusion regarding whether a particular field can tolerate being sprayed with Roundup. “An applicator could run a simple test on the alfalfa in the field to make sure they are about to spray the correct field,” Lawruk explains.

Seed tests can be run by grinding the seed and following a similar testing procedure to that used for hay. “The test's sensitivity is 0.167%, or one seed in 600 or higher,” says Dean Layton, EnviroLogix vice president of sales and marketing.

For more information, contact Strategic Diagnostics Inc., Dept. FIN, 111 Pencader Dr., Newark, DE 19702, 800/544-8881, visit www.sdix.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 204.

Or contact EnviroLogix Inc., Dept. FIN, 500 Riverside Industrial Pkwy., Portland, ME 04103, 866/408-4597, visit www.envirologix.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 205.