“We have made some progress but stay tuned for the success stories.”
Forages are a feast for livestock, and more cultivars than ever before are available thanks to a hearty breeding program at the Lethbridge Research Centre. Surya Acharya, a research scientist, is also the national leader for a forage breeding study being done by Agriculture Canada. Along with four other researchers across the county, Acharya develops cultivars of traditional and non-traditional forages to provide the livestock industry with more options.
Alfalfa, often referred to as the “queen of forages,” is the most widespread forage crop in Western Canada. It is grown on about 2.6 million hectares, is widely adapted, quick to establish and produces high forage yield of high quality.
This super forage, however, has a few weaknesses. It can cause bloat in livestock, which can even be fatal. It cannot survive in mixed stands, has limited tolerance to acidic or saline soils, and is susceptible to verticillium wilt.
Researchers are finding new ways to reduce alfalfa-related pasture bloat. The solution lies in condensed tannins, which prevent bloat in cattle by reacting with protein to form insoluble tannin-protein complexes.
Sainfoin, another forage crop easily identifiable by its bright pink flowers, contains condensed tannins in all parts of the plant, and can be planted with alfalfa to reduce bloat.
Acharya says that while sainfoin has excellent quality and palatability and can reduce bloat in alfalfa pastures if present even at low levels, it competes poorly and has low tolerance for frequent cutting or grazing. Thus, breeding goals for sainfoin include cultivars with improved forage yield, tolerance to grazing and the ability compete with alfalfa in mixed stands.
Breeding in wilt resistance
Another alfalfa breeding goal is to continue to develop cultivars that are highly resistant to verticillium wilt. Three high-yielding and highly resistant cultivars produced by Lethbridge over the past 14 years are AC Blue 3, AC Longview and AC Dalton.
For the past four years, Acharya has been focusing on the development of acid-and salt-tolerant alfalfa cultivars. “We have made some progress, but stay tuned for the success stories,” he says.
Generally, Acharya works with seven forage crops: the traditional crops of alfalfa, cicer milkvetch, sainfoin and orchardgrass, and the non-traditional crops of perennial cereal (PC) rye, fenugreek and giant wild rye. He was the one to introduce fenugreek and PC rye as new crops to the area. While giant wild rye is native to this area, it hasn’t been used a forage crop, says Acharya. Now there’s the potential for it to be used as biomass for the ethanol industry.
This year, Acharya is also planning a trial on industrial hemp to be used as biomass, although it could be used as forage.