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Extension > Agriculture > Forage Production > Forage and variety selection > A comparison between reduced lignin and reference alfalfa varieties

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A comparison between reduced lignin and reference alfalfa varieties

Amanda M. Grev, M. Scott Wells, Krishona L. Martinson, Deborah A. Samac, and Craig C. Sheaffer

Alfalfa is widely used as forage for livestock due to its high nutrient content. However, the digestibility and utilization of alfalfa by these animals is hampered by its lignin content. Lignin is a complex structure that makes up part of the fibrous portion of plants. While it provides the strength and rigidity necessary for a plant to stand upright, lignin is an indigestible component of plants and reduces the fiber digestibility of forages. New alfalfa varieties with reduced lignin concentrations are now commercially available. These varieties have potential to increase the feeding value of alfalfa through increased forage digestibility. In addition, improvements in forage nutritive value may lengthen the time period when alfalfa is best suited for high-producing livestock. This could allow for a wider optimal harvest window, making it possible for alfalfa growers to delay alfalfa harvest and achieve greater yields while still maintaining a high forage nutritive value.

Evaluating yield and forage quality

This study was designed to evaluate the yield and forage nutritive value of reduced lignin and reference alfalfa varieties when subject to diverse cutting treatments during the first production year. Alfalfa was planted at Becker, Rosemount, and St. Paul, MN in April 2015 and research was conducted during the 2016 growing season. Alfalfa varieties included the reference alfalfa varieties ‘54R02’, ‘DKA43-22RR’, and ‘WL355.RR’, as well as the reduced lignin variety ‘54HVX41’. Treatments included four cutting treatments with varying harvest frequencies ranging from 30- to 45-days. Forage yield, forage nutritive value, and plant maturity were measured.

bar graph

Figure 1. Cumulative forage yield by alfalfa variety for alfalfa grown in Becker, Rosemount, and St. Paul, MN during the first production year (2016).

Forage yields

Results are presented for the first production year (2016). Cumulative forage yields ranged from 6.6 to 9.8 T/A (Figure 1). Yields were similar among alfalfa varieties at Rosemount and St. Paul but at Becker yields for reduced lignin alfalfa (54HVX41) were less compared to reference varieties. As anticipated, yields were greater with a 40-day cutting schedule compared to a 30-day cutting schedule (averaging 8.3 T/A and 7.5 T/A across locations, respectively).

Forage quality

Across locations, all alfalfa varieties contained ≥ 18% crude protein (CP), ≤ 46% neutral detergent fiber (NDF), ≤ 9% acid detergent lignin (ADL), and ≥ 28% neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFD). Compared to reference alfalfa varieties, reduced lignin alfalfa had reduced ADL concentrations (7.9%) and increased NDFD (33.5%) but similar CP (18.5%) and NDF (42%) concentrations (Table 1). On average, reduced lignin alfalfa demonstrated an 8% reduction in ADL and a 10% increase in NDFD. As anticipated, cutting treatments with shorter harvest intervals generally resulted in higher forage nutritive values, including increased CP, decreased NDF and ADL, and increased NDFD.

Table 1. Forage quality of reduced lignin and reference alfalfa varieties, 2016.

Forage quality measures Reduced lignin varieties Reference varieties
Crude protein (%) 18.5 18.0
Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) (%) 42.0 42.9
Acid detergent lignin (ADL) (%) 7.9 8.5
Neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFD) (%) 33.5 29.7

Forage quality over time

negative response curves

Figure 2. Predicted alfalfa relative forage quality averaged across locations for reduced lignin (54HVX41; y1) and reference alfalfa varieties (y2) in response to average cumulative growing degree days. Lines indicate predicted values, while the shaded areas indicate the 95% confidence interval for each line; non-overlapping confidence intervals indicate a significant difference between lines. Relative forage quality was increased for reduced lignin alfalfa from 772 to 1,248 GDD, which represents a range of cutting intervals between 28 and 40 days.

When alfalfa forage yields and relative forage quality (RFQ) were averaged over locations and expressed as a function of growing degree days (GDD), yields for reduced lignin and reference alfalfa varieties were similar; however, RFQ for reduced lignin alfalfa was greater from 772 to 1,248 GDD, which represents a range of cutting intervals between 28 and 40 days (Figure 2). The increase in RFQ observed for reduced lignin alfalfa across a wide range of GDD and cutting intervals demonstrates the potential of this new trait to provide increased flexibility for alfalfa growers.

Growers could choose to harvest reduced lignin alfalfa at the same time as reference varieties to obtain a more digestible forage product, or producers could harvest reduced lignin alfalfa under a delayed cutting schedule and maintain forage quality across a lengthened harvest window. For example, with a 5-day harvest delay, reduced lignin alfalfa harvested on a 35-day cutting interval showed a 21% gain in yield and a 3% reduction in RFQ compared to reference varieties harvested on a 30-day harvest interval (Figure 2). This could allow for a wider optimal harvest window, making it possible for alfalfa growers to achieve higher yields by delaying alfalfa harvest while still maintaining high forage nutritive value.

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