Seed firms seek saline market

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

Michael Velde
Michael Velde, an alfalfa breeder for Dairyland Seeds, says his company is introducing a conventionally selected salt-tolerant alfalfa variety in 2012, and may follow with a hybrid alfalfa if demand dictates. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

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

Michael Velde, an alfalfa breeder for Dairyland Seed Co., of West Bend, Wis. Velde 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 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 is in place for registering variety as saline-tolerant, but hasn't submitted the forms.


"That will be submitted in November," he says.

Alfalfa's challenge

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 a 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 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 on-farm tests. The HybriForce varieties tend to express finer-stemmed plants vs. coarser-stemmed plants. The finer-stemmed varieties tended to have better palatability in dairyman obser-

vation. 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 of 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 roots 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.

If the company sells out of all of the Magnum Salt seed it produces in 2012, that would be encouraging. The company expects to produce some 60,000 pounds of seed. Divided by the 15- pounds-per-acre seeding rate, that would plant some 4,000 to 5,000 acres.

"First of all, we need develop a demand for salt-tolerant alfalfa," Velde says. "If the market demands it, we'll hybridize it. We're in the process of developing hybrids from day one, but that process could take one to five years. We have to test parent stock to see what would work for these kinds of soils."

More than half of Dairyland Seed's alfalfa revenues are from hybrid alfalfa. Velde says the marketing pattern may resemble a branch-rooted alfalfa that Dairyland Seeds released in 1990 for wetter soils. That took two years to catch on, but eventually accounted for a third of the company's alfalfa volume.


Prices will be similar to Dairyland Seed's other nonhybrid alfalfas, Velde says. Prices aren't yet out for 2012, but are expected to be in the mid-$200 per bag range. He compared them with hybrid alfalfas, which, in 2011, listed at a full retail rate of about $369 per bag.

Important review

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, 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.

Cal/West selects for tolerance at germination, seedling growth and mature growth "which are all three genetically different," he says. The company has been working with irrigation districts in North Dakota and Montana and with researchers in Swift Current, Saskatch-

ewan. Johnson, who developed the salt water greenhouse test in Arizona, says field data is most relevant.

"North Dakota is a great place to test it because you have some places with salt," Johnson says. "That's not a great thing to have salt, but it's good location for people to evaluate varieties because you have saline conditions that reduce yield."

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.


Jane Holzer, a Conrad, Mont., program director for the Montana Salinity Control Association, a satellite for the Montana Conservation Districts, says the only varieties her association has seen sufficient saline-tolerance data on are Bullseye and TS 4002 and PGI 427 -- all now sold through Cal/West and Producers Choice seed.

"They have more salt tolerance than traditional dryland, winter-hardy alfalfa," Holzer says.

They're not extremely salt-tolerant, she says.

She says she isn't very familiar with the Dairyland Seed products.

Holzer says Cal/West also has AC Saltlander, a green wheatgrass, which also is extremely salt tolerant. Alfalfa is considered better for reducing salinity in the recharge areas, because it grows a longer season, and is deeper rooted.

The real value is whether the new varieties -- whoever provides them -- also produce good-quality products, but perform well under nonsaline conditions, Holzer says. Montana has about 300,000 acres of saline soils, but they're distributed in patches in small acreages. Salinity has been on a downward trend for several years, but in the wet areas of the past two years, it likely will increase.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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