Top Crop Manager

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First hybrid takes alfalfa in a new direction

Consistently higher yields can be expected.


November 15, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

When it comes to forage production in Canada, Greg Thompson is something of
a pioneer. The Calahoo, Alberta, beef producer is one of the first to grow HybriForce
400, the first hybrid alfalfa ever registered in Canada.

In 2003, Thompson planted a quarter-section of HybriForce with barley as a
cover crop. After the barley came off, Thompson's hybrid alfalfa went through
a 'perfect storm' of bad conditions over the following eight months: a cold
winter, a freezing spring, an early-summer of heavy rain and hail.

With five other alfalfa varieties growing on his farm, including his old standby
Algonquin, Thompson was anxious to see whether the variety behaved differently
than his conventional alfalfa. "The HybriForce came through the winter
a lot stronger than the others," he says. "It also handled the cold
spring better."

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In a typical year, Thompson is cutting hay by the end of June. In 2004, the
first cut was not until late July. In comparing yields on a series of six, 3.4
acre plots, Thompson's HybriForce produced more than 15,000 pounds of hay, or
about 25 percent more than his next-best-yielding alfalfa. Despite the additional
cost of the seed, Thompson is an early believer in the yield advantage of hybrid
alfalfa.

Much to be learned
Hybrids transformed corn production during the 20th Century, propelling average
US yields from 20 bushels per acre in 1930 to 140 bushels by the mid 1990s.
Hybrid canola, a novelty just 10 years ago, now accounts for nearly half of
the Canadian canola seed market.

Will hybrid alfalfa's growth be revolutionary as with corn, evolutionary as
with canola, or something else entirely? Alberta provincial forage specialist
Mark Johns says it is too soon to tell. "Establishment, spring growth,
recovery after cutting, and winter hardiness could all be expected to improve
with the hybrids," he says. "But when you look at the numbers we're
seeing so far, we're not seeing big hybrid-related yield advantages. The yield
advantage might be six percent to 10 percent."

While rock-solid Alberta numbers are not yet available, Johns notes that HybriForce
has been extensively studied in the US. One University of Wisconsin study compared
HybriForce 400 to other varieties at 25 sites, and found that HybriForce was
a consistent top performer, yielding in the top 10 percent at all 25 sites.
The next most consistent variety achieved top 10 percent status at four sites.

Hybrid vigour: quick germination, aggressive growth
Antonio Tejada believes it is just a matter of time before hybrid alfalfa becomes
a routine part of forage production in Canada. As regional sales representative
for Brett-Young Seeds' forage group, he has been working closely with central
Alberta forage producers since the spring of 2003. Brett-Young Seeds holds the
marketing rights to HybriForce 400, which was developed by Wisconsin-based Dairyland
Seeds.

"Because of its hybrid vigour, growers can see the advantages of HybriForce
very quickly," he says. "Growers are amazed by how aggressive this
alfalfa is. It germinates in three to four days and in cases where it's underseeded
with barley, it has been known to crowd out the barley."

While full-scale 2004 yield results are still pending, Tejada points to an
extensive body of Dairyland research. This research contends that HybriForce
out-yields conventional alfalfas by eight to 15 percent. As the stand gets older,
Tejada notes, the yield differential actually widens. By year four, when production
of conventional alfalfa begins to decline, Tejada expects that the hybrid will
still be going strong. "Basically, you get an extra year out of the stand,"
he says.

The picture gets more complicated when seed costs are considered. At $5 to
$6 per pound, HybriForce seed is two to three times the cost of some conventional
alternatives. Producer Greg Thompson has done the math for himself. "The
way I look at it, the seed pays for itself with the first cut," he says.

With credible yield data on the way, forage producers and agronomists alike
will be watching the new alfalfa closely. "It's a step in the right direction,"
says Johns. "It's the start of something good." -30-