ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - With much of the Southwest struggling with drought, many ranchers and dairy farmers are having difficulty finding enough hay for their livestock and making tough choices: pay up to twice as much as last year and ship it in from hundreds of miles away or do without and sell off some of their herd.
Farmers, ranchers and scientists say a perfect storm has turned hay into gold this year. The drought reduced forage on the range and led to an increase in demand for hay, including alfalfa and other grass mixes. At the same time, the drought and lower water allotments for agriculture reduced the supply and prices skyrocketed. Farmers as far as North Dakota and Minnesota have been feeling the effects.
Scientists at New Mexico State University are trying to help by using genetic analysis and traditional plant breeding practices to come up with more drought-tolerant varieties of alfalfa. The research is important because two-thirds of hay produced in the U.S. is grown in drought-prone areas of the Great Plains or the western U.S., said Ian Ray, the professor who runs NMSU's alfalfa breeding and genetics program.
Hay is the fourth most valuable crop grown in the United States with sales generating more than $7.5 billion. It's essential to everything from the billion-dollar dairy and beef industries to the wool market and even horse racing.
NMSU has been working on developing tougher alfalfa plants for more than three decades. Ray and his team, with help from the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma, have identified a series of DNA markers on alfalfa chromosomes that they believe play a key role in producing more alfalfa with less water.
It took several years to map the alfalfa genome and identify the markers that influence development of the plant's shoots and roots during drought. Then a couple of years of breeding were needed to incorporate those characteristics into alfalfa cultivars typically grown by farmers in New Mexico.
The work is more precise than classical plant breeding because the scientists were able to introduce only the drought tolerance characteristics they were after.
"DNA markers just help us do a much better job of uncovering, tracking and selecting for natural genetic variation for drought tolerance," Ray said.