During the three decades I was agronomist at the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute (Chazy, New York), I ordered the field and forage crop seed, always taking full advantage of early-order and early-pay discounts. Even with interest rates considerably higher than they are now, it was economical to order and pay early.

If necessary, farmers could afford to borrow the money to pay early and still come out ahead since the early pay discount almost always exceeded the prevailing interest rate. The other advantage of early orders is ensuring that the farmer gets the crop varieties he wants, not what’s left in the seed company warehouse a month before spring planting. Most seed companies allow some changes in seed selection should your plans change, especially if the change is from one variety or hybrid to another. Even if you don’t pay early, early orders are recommended. Not surprisingly, the newest and best-performing field and forage crop varieties are usually the ones that sell out first!

Alfalfa variety decisions

For most of the over 100 years that alfalfa has been grown in the United States, the brand of seed and winter survival were among the relatively few decisions farmers had to make. There wasn’t much difference among varieties in yield, insects or disease resistance. Looking at a century of yield “progress” in the United States for average and top alfalfa yields (1900-2000), there wasn’t much progress at all! In fact, drawing a trend line through the yield from dozens of university trials results in a line that’s almost horizontal, meaning no change in yield over time. Remarkably, yield increased little, if at all, with the advent of genetic resistance to potato leafhoppers and multiple diseases as well as the release of multi-leafed varieties. The reasons for this are several: First, there’s some “yield drag” to leafhopper-resistant alfalfa varieties (compared to nonresistant varieties) that has persisted though it may be narrowing a bit. Multi-leaf varieties look great growing in the field and over time the expression of this nongenetically engineered trait has increased. Many years ago we planted Legend alfalfa at Miner Institute, the first variety promoted as multi-leaf. While we could find plants with five and occasionally seven leaflets (vs. the normal three leaflets), the expression of multi-leaf plants – in other words, the percentage of plants with this trait – was low. Now we have varieties with much higher multi-leaf expression, but most haven’t been anything out of the ordinary for yield or quality. Disease resistance is an important trait, but only if the disease is present, which often it isn’t. Since most modern alfalfa varieties now have resistance to several alfalfa diseases with little or no price premium it makes sense to use them, but don’t expect a big yield impact. In many cases by the time a disease such as Verticillium wilt, called the “old age disease” of alfalfa, becomes serious the farmer has decided to rotate the field to corn anyway.

Hybrid alfalfas have been on the market for some years now and generally have done well in university trials. They don’t always top the trial but usually are above the trial average and often in the top third. One drawback has been the lack of leafhopper resistance in hybrid alfalfa, but plant breeders likely are working actively on this trait.

There was one reduced-lignin variety on the market this year and at least three varieties will be available for 2016 seeding; so far they appear to be performing as advertised, at least for quality. The goal is to have a lower lignin level in the plant as it matures from bud to early bloom so that a farmer can harvest early bloom alfalfa and expect similar forage quality as with conventional varieties at the bud stage. University research data so far is limited, and we don’t know how these varieties will perform under typical farm conditions of variable drainage, severe winter weather, etc., but so far, so good. A discomforting fact is that almost all previous efforts at improving alfalfa quality have been at the expense of yield: As quality increases, forage yield decreases. Let’s hope that these new reduced-lignin varieties will overcome this problem. One obvious limitation of reduced-lignin varieties is when alfalfa is seeded with a cool-season forage grass such as tall fescue or orchardgrass. While reduced-lignin alfalfa may maintain high forage quality until early bloom, this won’t be true for most grasses. As it is farmers often have a hard time selecting grasses that will still be in the vegetative state (not headed out) when first cut alfalfa is in the late bud stage. Similar problems may be encountered for second and subsequent harvests. It’s too early to know just how much of a problem this will be, but until there’s some research on the subject, farmers who seed alfalfa-grass would be well advised to proceed with caution.

Corn hybrids for silage

Farmers should carefully select corn hybrids for silage production; there are huge differences in yield and disease resistance among the hundreds of hybrids for sale in the northeastern United States. There are also meaningful differences in quality, but most of these are related to how much grain the particular hybrid produces. A good-yielding crop of corn silage contains a lot of grain – more than five bushels per ton of silage – but there’s considerable variation in total yield and bushels of corn per ton. There’s much more difference among hybrids in yield and grain content then there is digestibility; in fact, most corn hybrids when harvested for whole-plant silage will vary by only five to eight percentage points in neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestibility. And that includes the best and worst – with the notable exception of brown midrib (BMR) hybrids, which don’t yield as well as most conventional hybrids but are consistently higher in NDF digestibility. Seed companies continue in their attempts to breed conventional hybrids with reliably higher fiber digestibility, but mostly with little success. We’re still looking and hoping for that plant breeding breakthrough that will result hybrids that will produce silage with high yield and reliably high digestibility.

Cover photo courtesy BWFolsom/istock