USDA ruling on Roundup Ready alfalfa seed makes hay growers happy |

USDA ruling on Roundup Ready alfalfa seed makes hay growers happy

The news that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had decided to allow the use of genetically modified alfalfa, commonly referred to as Roundup Ready, was exciting for Kevin Willard of Hudson, Colo., who owns and operates the W Spur Hay Co.

“Wow. We’ve been waiting on this for years,” Willard said when advised of the approval. He grows about 500 acres of alfalfa hay each year, and sells the majority of it to local cattle producers in the region.

While he has heard of others using the seed, which allows for improved weed control because the crop can be sprayed with Roundup herbicide without killing the alfalfa, he has not used any of it – yet.

“I’ve got a pivot over by Fort Lupton, about 110 acres, that I’ve just had a terrible time with for years trying to keep the weeds out. I’m going to have to do some research now and do some calling to see if I might want to plant Roundup Ready in that field. That might be the answer,” Willard said.

The Roundup Ready seed, developed by Monsanto, became available in 2005 following several years of research and development. That was followed by several lawsuits which resulted in a federal judge rescinding USDA approval in 2007; the judge said the department had not fully assessed environmental impacts. The USDA then started an Environmental Impact Study on the use of the genetically modified seed, which was completed late last year.

That EIS is 2,300 pages long and said the USDA would decide between two options – allow unrestricted commercial growing or partly restricted use. The USDA announced its decision to allow unrestricted use of the seed Jan. 27.

The decision by the USDA was not without its detractors, particularly from environmental groups and organic farmers who fear cross-contamination; that fear was the basis for many of the lawsuits that were filed seeking to halt use of the seed. Organic farmers have said they can lose sales if genetic engineering is detected in their crops, which they said could come from cross-pollination from nearby fields or intermingling of seeds.

But the USDA said the decision by its Animal Plants and Health Inspection Service was made after analysis of various economic and environmental factors, and allows GMO farmers to get their crop in the ground this spring.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a statement released by the USDA, said APHIS had conducted a thorough and transparent examination and determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa.

Alfalfa is the fourth largest U.S. field crop grown, worth roughly $8 billion to $10 billion and grown on about 20 million acres as food for livestock. About 1 percent of alfalfa nationally is organic.

In Colorado, there were about 840,000 acres of alfalfa hay in 2010, according to the state office of the USDA’s Agricultural Statistics Service, with about 112,000 of those acres in Weld County, making it the leading hay county in the state. In terms of acreage, alfalfa hay is the third largest in the county, trailing only wheat and corn.

The state’s ag statistical service put the value of the crop for 2009 at $457.4 million.

Willard said while he hasn’t used the GMO alfalfa, he’s talked with fellow farmers who have.

“I have a friend down in Amarillo (Texas) who said it’s the greatest thing since farming. He got me all fired up about using it,” he said. Then use of the seed was banned following the lawsuits and ensuing EIS by the agriculture department.

“I don’t know if I can just reseed that field by Fort Lupton or if I need to tear it up and replant. I’ll just have to do some more research and figure out what might work best,” Willard said.

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