but doing so can have unwanted effects on alfalfa persistence. It’s an interesting conundrum that Claessens and her team are challenged with. “We’re trying to help growers extend the alfalfa growing season from late summer through to early winter, so we want less dormant cultivars. However, when they’re less dormant, they generally have lower winter survival.” Some significant gains have been made in recent years, like the kind Lutterotti refers to, where winter hardiness has been improved while keeping fall dormancy the same. But there’s a ways to go, Claessens notes. “Those two traits can be improved simultaneously. We’ve developed an indoor selection method to decrease dormancy but increase freezing tolerance, which is one of the most important factors in lowering winter survival under our climatic conditions.” Breeding for better freezing tolerance involves creating plants with perennial organs (crown and roots) that are able to withstand freezing temperatures. She reports that they have been able to increase the freezing tolerance of alfalfa by 5 C. Claessens and her colleagues are also working at disease resistance, which is the second-most important factor lowering winter survival. Breeding efforts are focusing on Phytophthora root rot and Aphanomyces root rot, thereby helping alfalfa to be less affected by cold and wet soil conditions. Phytophthora root rot, caused by a fungus-like pathogen, is believed to survive for many years in the soil, and may attack alfalfa after long rotations to other crops. Aphanomyces root root, caused by a pathogen very similar to Phytophthora, attacks both seedlings and adult alfalfa plants and can dramatically reduce yield and vigour of established stands. “We’ve developed an indoor selection method to identify which plants are highly and moderately resistant to those diseases. We can select plants with greater resistance and breed them to rapidly develop lines that are better able to resist those pests.” Boosting quality also remains the mission of alfalfa breeders like Claessens. “Our goal is to have cows produce more milk from the alfalfa they consume, either by increasing alfalfa’s digestibility or energy content so the microorganisms in their stomach can have more energy to process the protein,” she says. “By increasing the energy content, we can increase milk production from forages, increase protein content of the milk, and reduce nitrogen loss in the environment at the same time.” Exciting new alfalfa varieties don’t just appear overnight, though. Claessens notes that breeding programs are expensive, and new sources of germplasm and funding are always being sought. It can take many years for a new alfalfa variety to hit the market. 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