Anyone feeding alfalfa or grass hay to their livestock in New Mexico this year is aware that it has become costly — and that's only if you can get it. Drought conditions and low allotments of water for irrigation have resulted in a reduced supply as demand has increased.

The development of alfalfa varieties that are more drought tolerant would obviously be a boon to both consumers and hay producers. Although alfalfa breeders at New Mexico State University have been developing better varieties of alfalfa since 1918, researchers are now combining high-tech genetic analysis with traditional plant breeding practices in this effort.

Ian Ray, a professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, currently heads up NMSU's Alfalfa Breeding and Genetics Program. The approach he and Ph.D. candidate Gina Babb are taking in their search for more drought-resistant varieties is called "DNA marker-assisted selection."

"One of the research projects that we've been working on for actually over 10 years now is evaluating the potential to use DNA markers to improve alfalfa drought tolerance, specifically with reference to New Mexico, but hopefully also in a more general context, in areas of the Southern Great Plains and the Southwestern U.S. that are facing water shortages," Ray said.

The first phase of the project was a collaboration a decade ago between NMSU and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, a nonprofit agricultural research center in Ardmore, Okla. Through that partnership, researchers were able to identify DNA "marker alleles" that were common to alfalfa populations that produced more forage and root biomass under low-water conditions. Partial funding for that project came from USDA grants and the Noble Foundation.

The current phase of the project, funded by grants from the Southwest Consortium on Plant Genetics and Water Resources and a Graduate Research Enhancement Grant from NMSU's vice president for research, uses DNA MAS to improve alfalfa forage production in drought-prone environments.

"The project that we have going on here involves transferring the DNA marker alleles, which we previously determined were associated with alfalfa productivity under water deficit conditions, into different types of alfalfa that farmers grow here in the state," Ray said, standing in the test plot late in the growing season. "Then we evaluate the effects of those DNA markers on forage productivity."