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New Mexico State University

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Alfalfa Research Marries Conventional, Modern Techniques

LAS CRUCES -- Alfalfa research at New Mexico State University is a marriage of the old, the new and the borrowed.


Alfalfa breeder Ian Ray uses conventional and modern methods to feed the need for ever-better forage in New Mexico. Alfalfa, the state's top cash crop, is grown on 265,000 acres statewide.

"We probably have the most diverse production environments of any of the 50 states," Ray said. "We have to grow very winter- hardy material up in the Four Corners region of Farmington, but down in this part of the state we grow nondormant varieties, which grow all year long."

The state's arid climate is ideal for producing premium hay that's shipped nationwide and sought after by New Mexico's thriving dairy industry. The challenge is keeping alfalfa yields high with limited irrigation.

To help growers, Ray is building on 20-year-old research by three NMSU scientists: Bill Melton and Cliff Currier, longtime alfalfa breeders, and Marvin Wilson, former Agricultural Experiment Station director and namesake of drought-tolerant Wilson alfalfa.

Though it grows well under limited irrigation, Wilson lacks resistance to two major diseases, phytophthora root rot and anthracnose. Both reduce yields in southern New Mexico, particularly on heavy soils that are irrigated.

Ray has released two experimental lines of improved Wilson to seed companies for further development. He's continuing work on hybrids that combine resistance to both diseases.

To complement traditional plant breeding, Ray uses new techniques like DNA mapping and genetic engineering.

A two-year project to map alfalfa's DNA, funded by the Southwest Consortium on Plant Genetics and Water Resources, will help make Ray's work more precise.

Rather than selecting alfalfa based only on appearance, Ray hopes to be able to pinpoint genes that control traits like yield and water-use efficiency.

Ray also is involved in cutting-edge genetic engineering research in collaboration with other scientists from NMSU and the University of Arizona.

"We've got molecular biologists, biochemists and alfalfa geneticists working together to improve salt tolerance in alfalfa," he said. "Arizona scientists have identified and cloned genes from other organisms that confer salt tolerance, and we're now moving those into alfalfa."

Once greenhouse tests find the most promising combinations, the genes will be transferred into alfalfa that's adapted to New Mexico. Though the work is in early stages, it has long-term potential.

To increase yields in the meantime, Ray is borrowing the best from alfalfa grown around the world.

At NMSU's Leyendecker Plant Science Center near Las Cruces, he's planted material from a national seedbank in Fort Collins, Colo. -- including alfalfa that can tolerate Siberian winters or thrive in Middle Eastern deserts.

"We incorporate those that demonstrate potential into our breeding program," he said. "We've got some preliminary evidence that shows we can quickly equal the yields of commercial varieties, if not exceed those, by infusing new germplasm or new blood into our breeding material."

Old, new and borrowed alfalfa lines can be tested at NMSU science centers throughout the state to ensure that they make the cut for New Mexico's varied climate.