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New alfalfa variety offered for tolerance to salty soils

WEST FARGO, N.D. -- Help for farmers dealing with saline soils was one of the technologies on parade at the recent Big Iron trade show and associated events in West Fargo, N.D.

Michael Velde, an alfalfa breeder for Dairyland Seed Co., of West Bend, Wis., says his company in 2012 will come out with Magnum Salt, a branch-rooted variety that offers tolerance to saline soils. The variety initially will be target-marketed to eastern and central North Dakota, South Dakota and western Minnesota. It will be available in eastern Colorado, western Kansas, Nebraska, Montana and Utah.

Velde says Dairyland Seed's Magnum Salt will survive "pH levels in the 8.5 to lower 9s" range. Dairyland company hopes to sell stocks of seed that would plant some 4,000 to 5,000 acres in 2012, and will see where the market goes after that. Some producers are planting alfalfa on some high-saline soils to rehabilitate them for planting corn. He says the variety has been tested by third parties in North Dakota since 2008 and now has tests in Forman, Carrington, Buchanan and New Rockford.

Other companies are in the market -- notably Cal/West Seed Co. of Woodland, Calif. Cal/West, with alfalfa breeding in West Salem, has had saline-tolerant alfalfas on the market in the region since at least 2003. Their products have sold through Producers Choice Seed and have been tested at North Dakota Research Extension centers among others in the region for several years. Their saline-tolerant varieties, starting with Bullseye, was certified and reviewed by what's now the National Alfalfa and Miscellaneous Legume Variety Review Board in 2003, says David Johnson, Cal/West's assistant director of research. The company sells four nondormant saline-tolerant varieties, primarily used in the Northern states.

Velde says the data for his variety are in place for registering variety as saline-tolerant, and forms will be submitted in November.

The alfalfa industry always is changing, Velde says. The crop faces heavy competition from corn and soybeans. As these "premier commodity crops" have become more expensive, this has pushed alfalfa into marginal areas of soil quality, including the higher saline soils in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Velde, a Granite Falls, Minn., native, finished his undergraduate work in 1978 at North Dakota State University in Fargo and went on for graduate work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Emerging from graduate school in 1980, he went to work for Dairyland Seed, a company that made its name in the forage crop business but also now is significant in corn and soybeans.

Dairyland Seeds is the only company that developed hybrid alfalfas, Velde says. The hybridization work was started by Paul Sun, a Dairyland Seeds breeder, who did such work in the 1970s. Dairyland brought its first hybrid to market in 2001. HybriForce-400 since has been followed by eight more, all under the HybriForce label.

There were challenges to resolve with hybrid alfalfa seed production.

"We wanted to produce it like hybrid corn -- female rows, separate from male rows," Velde says. "But the bees would come in and work the male rows and wouldn't carry the pollen over to the female rows. So we decided to integrate the male rows in with the female rows and fixed the production issues."

Then, in the 1990s, the company used genetic markers to show that it was producing at least 75 percent hybrid seed, which is the standard in the federal seed law.

Velde says the first hybrid alfalfa was designed to increase yield by at least 10 to 15 percent higher than other popular conventional alfalfas at the time in onfarm tests. The HybriForce varieties tend to express finer-stemmed plants vs. coarser-stemmed plants. The finerstemmed varieties tended to have better palatability in dairyman observation. Drought tends to cause early flowering in conventional varieties, and the hybrid tends to delay its flowering, even in drought.

In 2004, Velde started a program to find a salt-tolerant alfalfa. He collected seeds from surviving plants in production fields of Dairyland Seed in eastern North Dakota. In 2008, he sent them to Arizona, where Dr. Steven Smith, at the University of Arizona, ran greenhouse tests for forage production, irrigated with salt water. Velde made further selections.

So far, selecting for simple survivability has been the goal, Velde says. One of the keys is that the surviving plants tend to have a prolific branched root vs. a predominant taproot.

"If we can just get alfalfa to grow in these wet areas, it pulls salts out of the soil, which tends to lower the soil pH," Velde says. Neutral pH is 7.0, he notes.

Cal/West's Johnson, who holds a doctorate degree in agronomy and plant genetics from the University of Arizona and specializes in alfalfa breeding for salt tolerance, describes his company as being the industry leader in saline-tolerant alfalfa varieties, emphasizing both the timing of variety release, as well as efficacy testing in the field.

Cal/West is a cooperative of seed producing farmers in the West. Johnson says his company has been breeding for saline tolerance for about 15 years and brought its first saline-tolerant variety to the market in 2003.

Johnson says his company hopes to start field trials in 2012 on genetically engineered alfalfa products, which could enhance salinity tolerance. Those could be five to 10 years in the future.

Pates writes for Grand Forks, N.D.-based Agweek, owned by Forum Communications Co.