More than 90 percent of alfalfa growers who were fortunate enough to plant Roundup Ready alfalfa before a federal judge pulled it off the market more than four years ago are pleased with the performance of the glyphosate-tolerant crop.
In a survey conducted by Dan Putnam, UC Davis forage specialist, and UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Steve Orloff of Siskiyou County, 113 RR alfalfa growers responded.
The 91 percent approval percentage was not surprising based on reports from growers who managed to get the fifth glyphosate-tolerant crop in the U.S. seeded between when it was introduced in 2005 and when a court halted sales in 2007. Surveyed growers had from three to six years of full production experience.
What was also not surprising was that $150 per bag technology fee was the biggest negative from a significant percentage of growers (77 percent). The cost of the conventional and biotech planting seed is basically the same.
More than 300,000 acres were planted from the time it was approved initially by USDA until it was pulled off the market by a 9th Circuit Court judge in January 2007 in response to a lawsuit by the radical environmental group, Center for Food Safety. This group challenged the initial USDA release of the biotech crop, claiming the federal government should have developed an Environmental Impact Statement. USDA took almost four years to do that. In the middle of that, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 9th Circuit ban on planting RR alfalfa. However, Monsanto, developer of RR alfalfa, and other defendants in the lawsuit waited for the federal government to issue its EIS. That came down in January 2011, and sales of RR alfalfa resumed then.
In March, the Center for Food Safety filed a new lawsuit. However, that likely will be little more than a harassment legal action since growers nationwide have been allowed to plant RR alfalfa during both the spring and fall of 2011.
Here are other results from the survey that was conducted last fall:
- 91 percent of the RR alfalfa growers said they were satisfied, pleased or felt the technology exceeded their expectations; 72 percent said they would definitely plant it again; 21 percent said maybe and 7 percent said no.
- 41 percent of the RR alfalfa growers said weed resistance to glyphosate concerned them; 34 percent said they were not sure if they were concerned about it and 25 expressed no concern about weeds developing resistance.
- 50 percent of those surveyed believed RR alfalfa yielded about the same as conventional alfalfa varieties; 27 percent indicated RR alfalfa yields were higher; 12 percent said they yielded less and 11 percent did not know.
- 50 percent of those surveyed believed forage quality was about the same for herbicide tolerant alfalfa varieties and conventional ones. However, 41 percent said they felt RR alfalfa quality was higher. Less than 3 percent said it was lower.
- Almost 50 percent felt RR alfalfa showed longer stand persistence with 36 percent reporting persistence no different between the biotech crop and conventional varieties. Less than 4 percent said RR alfalfa may be less persistent.
Costs, yield differences
RR alfalfa has been evaluated by a number of universities, including UC Davis and its alfalfa working group. That study reports that a seeding rate of 20 pounds per acre equates to a $60 per acre increase for RR alfalfa at planting time due to the technology fee. The herbicide cost for an application of Roundup is significantly less than $10 per acre (excluding application costs). The cost of conventional herbicides to control weeds in seedling alfalfa is often $30-$45. The herbicide cost for a dormant alfalfa weed control program in established alfalfa is typically $25 to $40 and can increase another $25 to $35 or more for an application of Treflan or Prowl for summer annual grasses. The technology fee is offset by what a grower could spend for conventional weed control, points out Orloff.
Growers participating in the survey cited improved, simpler and more flexible weed control as the key advantages to the RR system.
The issue of yield differences, according to the researchers, is not an herbicide-resistance gene factor. Where RR alfalfa yielded more than conventional varieties, the difference was generally in the weed control practices. Using a wide range of herbicides in conventional varieties normally caused crop injury and that can reduce yields and stand life.
Roundup controls a broader spectrum of weeds than other alfalfa herbicides and is especially effective on some problematic weeds, such as dodder, nutsedge and many perennial weeds.
While surveyed growers and researchers give RR alfalfa high marks, Orloff warned that to maintain that will require dedicated effort to avoid herbicide resistance.
“It is important that growers utilize a variety of weed control strategies rather than relying solely on Roundup applications in the RR alfalfa system,” Orloff said.
While the RR alfalfa system greatly simplifies weed management in alfalfa, effective control of most weeds in alfalfa is often feasible with conventional herbicides; they just require a higher level of weed science expertise — ability to properly identify weeds, use more precise application timing, and have the knowledge to select the proper herbicide, rate, or herbicide tank mixes to control the weeds encountered in a field, according to Orloff.
The advantages and cost effectiveness of RR alfalfa are not so great as to preclude a grower who chooses to produce conventional alfalfa from competing effectively with RR alfalfa growers, according to Orloff.