Alfalfa is the fourth-most-widely grown crop in the United States. Alfalfa is able to generate its own nitrogen through beneficial relationships with bacteria in the soil, thus it requires minimal or no nitrogen fertilizers. Alfalfa can be grazed directly, cut for hay or used for silage as a high quality forage. Challenges to agricultural productivity of alfalfa and other crop species include drought stress based on insufficient water availability, extremes in temperature, less than optimal soil conditions, and pressure from insects and diseases.
Scientists at the Noble Research Institute have developed the Alfalfa Breeder's Toolbox (available at: alfalfatoolbox.org) as a comprehensive, web-based portal to address practical challenges for alfalfa production and accelerate breeding to develop new enhanced cultivars with better performance.
The Toolbox brings together information from multiple fields of science as a way to more efficiently analyze complex types of data. One of those fields is "genomics," which refers to the genome sequence used to describe the order of letters (A, C, T and G) that serve as the genetic code, or blueprint with instructions on how to grow, develop and adapt to different growing conditions.
With the Toolbox, plant breeders can visualize differences in the DNA sequence, determine which genes are activated or turned on during stress conditions such as drought or in response to pressure from insects or diseases, and facilitate the identification of specific DNA sections that are unique in plants with desirable traits, to use them to tag those beneficial genes of interest.
An entire section of the Toolbox is dedicated to providing resources and information for those who grow or are interested in growing alfalfa. Under the "Farmers/Producers" tab of the website (alfalfatoolbox.org/farmers), you will find information and resources from the Noble Research Institute as well as university and industry sources.
The "Alfalfa University," a resource compiled by industry experts, provides information on field selection and establishment, soil fertility, pest and disease management, and strategies for efficient grazing management. Users can also select the best cultivar to grow based on their specific growing conditions including fall dormancy and disease ratings at alfalfa.org/varietyratings.php.
Alfalfa production guides specific for multiple states and approaches for harvesting, storage and forage quality testing are also provided. We have also integrated videos demonstrating effective strategies for soil sampling and best practices for drill and sprayer calibration.
Ultimately, the Alfalfa Breeder's Toolbox aims to serve as an online resource for the community, can enable us to address practical questions on how to grow and manage alfalfa, and enhance efficiencies to develop new cultivars that address current and future agricultural production challenges. We would love to hear what you think about this resource. Contact us at alfalfatoolbox.org/contact.