Two Agronomists In An Alfalfa Field

Hay just might be the future of farming

Alfalfa's formula for success: Science, technology and time

In an era of cell phones, same day grocery delivery and air travel, it’s no wonder we’ve grown accustomed to instant gratification. Well, most of us.

Stephen Temple, Director of Biotechnology at Forage Genetics International (FGI), is patient when it comes to seeing his work bear fruit. With an eye to the future, his outlook isn’t focused just on the next quarter or even next year, but rather the next 10 or 15 years. That’s how long it can take a scientist to have his or her work thoroughly tested and approved by regulators and out in the market. This long-term vision is what drew Stephen to a career in science and technology -- and what drew him to a career in agriculture at Land O’Lakes, Inc.

Harvested Alfalfa Near A Tractor Tire

Choose your own adventure

Stephen will never forget the day when one of his mentors at the Rothamsted Research Station in the United Kingdom (UK) showed him around the research facility -- they were studying how agrobacteria was able to transfer DNA to plant cells. “I was exposed to the cutting edge of technology in plant sciences. I could see the possibility and how it could impact agriculture -- I wanted to be a part of it,” says Stephen.

After completing his PhD, serving as a research fellow, working for Los Alamos national lab and New Mexico State University for 7 years, Stephen subsequently found himself running an alfalfa research lab at the University of Minnesota. It’s here where he was noticed by an up-and-coming company focused on the future of agriculture: Forage Genetics International (FGI), a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, Inc. In 1999, Stephen went to West Salem, Wisconsin to join the FGI team. At the time, it was a risky move. Plant biotechnology was still in its early days and didn’t have a road map, but Stephen knew that this meant he could do something significant. “Farming is a tough business. I knew the science I was passionate for could help farmers tackle some big challenges,” says Stephen.

An Agronomist Looking At An Alfalfa Flower

Alfalfa

Pause for a moment to think about some iconic images of a farming community. Cows, corn fields, a tractor -- and haystacks. Often, those haystacks are made up of dried alfalfa, a perennial crop plant high in protein. The protein makes it an important ingredient in livestock feed -- particularly for dairy cows. Decades ago, alfalfa growers had no choice but to use conventional breeding techniques to build those haystacks.

But, decades of research and development done by the West Salem team have brought two game changing commercial products to the market for alfalfa growers:

  • Weed control: Anyone with a green thumb knows weeds can easily take over a harvest. With the Roundup Ready® alfalfa technology, alfalfa growers are better able to control weeds, which allows more seedlings to survive. In turn, the plants require less maintenance, have faster and healthier growth potential -- which would naturally translate to increased yields and higher quality alfalfa for the grower.

  • Digestibility and flexibility: Lignin is a critical part of a plant cell’s genetic makeup -- helping make plants sturdy. However, it can also limit a cow’s ability to digest alfalfa, which can reduce the feeding quality needed for milk production. HarvXtra® alfalfa, a forage biotechnology developed by a small team at West Salem, along with partnerships with USDA and The Noble Foundation, reduces the amount of lignin in the alfalfa plant while maintaining the plant’s structure and agronomic characteristics. High-quality forage can provides the opportunity for greater profit potential or increased forage utilization by the animal. Those benefits can make a huge difference in a farmer’s income. What’s more, HarvXtra alfalfa gives farmers flexibility to delay harvest if needed. “Before, when heavy rains came it would put the harvest at risk,” says Stephen. “HarvXtra alfalfa builds in flexibility of timing. Farmers don’t typically take vacations, but with HarvXtra alfalfa they could.”

So, thanks to modern ag technologies -- not to mention the blood, sweat and tears of some talented scientists -- FGI has helped revolutionize alfalfa production. And now, the FGI team is taking HarvXtra alfalfa to international markets. Farmers in Canada and Argentina are (or will be soon) using the product to compete in their local markets. Stephen: We’ve changed the industry, but we aren’t stopping there.

Land O’Lakes member owners regularly visit the facility to learn about FGI’s portfolio of products. “These are smart business people running multimillion dollar operations. Their success doesn’t happen by chance -- it’s our purpose to help them progress,” says Stephen.

And, the learning goes both ways. Stephen listens to the issues they are facing. Their visits keep the West Salem team close to their primary customer: the farmers. This grounds the team’s day-to-day work in that critical long-term vision of advancing the forage industry. Stephen is particularly excited about two innovations on the long-term pipeline:

  • The power of the flower: When purple pops, it’s time to harvest. “If we can delay the timing of when alfalfa flowers, a grower will see significant increases in biomass, which can lead to increased yields on less land.” Though a commercial product may not hit the market for a decade or more, this kind of innovative technology is needed on a planet trying to feed more with less.

  • More protein on the scene: When cows digest alfalfa, a portion of the protein benefit is lost during digestion. “If you feed legumes containing condensed tannins to cows, you see an increase in protein efficiency -- the tannins bind to the protein to increase protein use efficiency.” Knowing this has got scientists like Stephen searching for ways to engineer alfalfa plants to produce condensed tannins.

Scientists In An Alfalfa Field

A united enterprise

Though FGI is a part of WinField United, Land O’Lakes’ crop inputs, insights and technology business, Stephen’s work crosses all of Land O’Lakes, Inc.’s diversified business areas. “Our primary customers are dairy producers, which include dairy members of the Land O’Lakes system,” says Stephen. “Their milk gets processed into Land O’Lakes dairy foods products, like the butter and cheese.” On the other side, FGI’s work in alfalfa also directly connects with Purina, the animal nutrition business. Stephen regularly consults with animal nutritionists to understand how alfalfa can be optimally used to support a healthy animal diet.

The strength of this farm-to-fork enterprise model, rooted in cooperative values and a purpose of Feeding Human Progress, is what gives Stephen the daily space and support to bring growers the innovation of tomorrow. After all, Feeding Human Progress doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, hard work, and a whole lot of science and technology.

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