AFTER SEVERAL years of anticipation, the first Roundup Ready alfalfa seed became available for sale in the U.S. at the end of July, according to Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International, Prior Lake, MN. The new technology recently completed a lengthy process to earn regulatory approval from USDA, FDA and EPA.

Roundup Ready varieties of both fall-dormant and nondormant seed are being sold as part of the limited domestic launch of the new technology. EPA subsequently approved the labels to use Roundup for weed control in Roundup Ready alfalfa forage and hay production.

Brand-new varieties

Alfalfa is the first perennial crop to be released with the Roundup Ready trait. Glyphosate-tolerant technology got its start when Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996. The Roundup Ready technology is also used in corn, cotton and canola.

Monsanto licensed Roundup Ready technology for alfalfa to Forage Genetics International, which in turn licenses it to other seed companies. Each company has been working to develop brand-new alfalfa varieties containing the Roundup Ready trait. McCaslin points out that in other Roundup Ready crops, the genetic trait for glyphosate tolerance was incorporated into existing varieties. By comparison, Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties have been developed using a forward-breeding process. This means that new varieties, not existing ones, will carry the benefits of the new technology.

McCaslin expects that Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties will be marketed by most of the national seed brands. An estimated 1.5 million pounds of seed will be available for planting the initial crop year, enough to plant about 75,000 acres nationwide. McCaslin says Roundup Ready seed is available for sale in all states this fall except Washington.

Technology fee

East of the Rocky Mountains, producers will pay a one-time technology fee of $125 per 50-lb. bag of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. West of the Rocky Mountains, the technology fee is $150/bag. The technology fee is assessed in addition to the cost of the seed. “The technology royalty is paid at the time of planting and covers the acres seeded for the life of the stand,” McCaslin explains. “This is a $10 to $15 per year cost at typical seeding rates and expected stand life.”

The technology is expected to be most popular in the western U.S., where hay producers typically use more herbicides than growers in other regions of the country do. The western U.S. is also where much of the country's alfalfa seed is produced. Shannon Mueller, University of California Extension farm advisor, Fresno, CA, says nondormant alfalfa production is centered in California, whereas production of dormant and semi-dormant varieties is located primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Researchers throughout the country have been investigating stewardship issues and the impact of potential pollen flow between fields of Roundup Ready and non-Roundup Ready fields.

Export market

Some hay growers have expressed concern about the impact Roundup Ready alfalfa could have on the U.S. hay export market. McCaslin says more than 98% of the U.S. alfalfa hay and hay products sold for export are sent to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada and Mexico. Japan represents more than 75% of all U.S. alfalfa hay and hay product exports. As McCaslin points out, all five countries have a process for approving import of biotech crops and currently import products derived from U.S.-produced biotech soybean, corn, canola and/or cotton. “We expect to get approval for import of Roundup Ready hay in Canada, Mexico and Japan by the end of the year,” he states.

Some Japanese importers may request alfalfa hay that has been certified as non-biotech hay. “In Japan a non-biotech food or feed product has less than 5% adventitious presence of a biotech trait,” McCaslin explains. Researchers currently are working to develop protein-based test strips to detect the presence of the Roundup Ready gene in alfalfa hay and forage.

McCaslin notes approximately 90% of the alfalfa produced in the U.S. is consumed domestically, much of it consumed on the farm where it is produced.

Detailed recommendations regarding seeding rate, timing and rate of Roundup application, in addition to how to take out a stand, are provided in a Monsanto Technical Use Guide given to all licensed Roundup Ready seed purchasers.

McCaslin says the Roundup Ready trait may be the first of several biotech traits that could be incorporated into alfalfa. Research is currently underway to investigate traits that could improve yield, increase insect resistance, and improve both fiber digestibility and protein utilization in the finished product.