Forage legumes that produce tannins in leaves or stems have increased stability of protein in the rumen, resulting in more intact protein by-passing the rumen and going directly to the cow’s stomach.

Genetic engineering offers tools that can be used to modify alfalfa to produce more tannin in leaves and stems. The Noble Foundation and other FGI collaborators have identified several candidate genes that may be useful in producing transgenic “tannin alfalfa”.

Researchers have found that tannin alfalfa would decrease protein supplementation by 60 percent, decrease on-farm nitrogen losses by 25 percent, and increase farm income by 12 percent. Tannin alfalfas would increase the value of hay by $23 per ton.

Field trials are underway with tannin alfalfas. McCaslin gave no date for possible release.

Alfalfa breeders are also using a technique called “Tilling” to search for improved DNA. Tilling is an acronym for Targeting Induced Local Lesions IN Genomes.

It is a relatively new breeding technique that was created as a result of DNA sequencing.

DNA sequencing came out of the biotechnology evolution. It allows breeders to quickly identify the desirable traits of extracted plant DNA. It is often called molecular marker technology, and it is widely used in so-called conventional breeding of individual species.

McCaslin said this molecular marker technology allows him to evaluate thousands of extracted DNA samples in a matter of weeks, where before it would take two years to do the same thing using older technology.

Tilling is a reverse genetic technique used to screen plant mutations. It is used in breeding rice, wheat and tomatoes,  as well as alfalfa.

McCaslin said Tilling is not regulated like biotechnology and therefore, less expensive to develop new cultivars using it rather than genetic engineering. It costs about $200,000 and takes two years to develop new varieties using Tilling, he says.

Forage Genetics has not abandoned traditional breeding methods. McCaslin said FGI continues to seek out new varieties that withstand environmental stresses like cold, heat, high salts and high PH soils.

FGI is field testing experimental varieties that can better tolerate these stresses, McCaslin said.

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