WHEN Australia’s thousands of livestock breeders look for high-performance lucerne pasture they have to turn to South Australia for the seed they need.
Because that’s where one of the world’s – not just the country’s – leading feed and forage research and breeding programs is run.
Alan Humphries heads the SA Research and Development Institute (SARDI) feed and forage science program and has been with the organisation for the past 16 years.
In which time he drove creation of the lucerne variety SARDI Grazer.
This variety is the cutting edge of lucerne production and will only go into major commercial release this year.
“South Australia produces 80 per cent of Australia’s lucerne seed and our varieties go to more than 20 other countries, from China to South Africa,” Dr Humphries said.
Coming off a mixed farm at Mt Gambier in the state’s Lower South-East – one more paddock to the east and he might have been a Victorian – Dr Humphries was always attuned to the grazing industry’s need for a better feed with greater longevity.
“With our Mediterranean climate, ancient soils and farmers who know how to flog them for the best results we have been able to develop a real leap forward for the industry,” he said.
“If farmers here and overseas are seeking a robust variety we have delivered them a seriously tough option. Its persistence is up to 20 per cent better than other varieties.
“SARDI Grazer is a perennial and will last as long as the stand lasts. What that means is that after four years people using this variety will still be getting 40 plants to the square metre. Other varieties by then will be down to as few as 20 plants.”
Dr Humphries said SARDI Grazer can be mown for lucerne hay up to seven times a year – "it goes on a 35-day cycle to cut but I would suggest 80 per cent of it is grazed in the paddock.”
South Australia is the world’s lucerne cradle, with about 500,000ha being grown between Keith and the coast.
Dr Humphries is continuing to explore new opportunities for lucerne in emerging farming systems, including the use of the wild relatives of lucerne to increase performance in drought conditions, intensive grazing systems, and in mixtures with other annual and perennial pasture species.
Keith, in the Upper South-East is known as the world capital for lucerne seed production (or alfalfa as the Americans insist on calling it).
But even armed with an astonishing array of germplasm Dr Humphries admits the full extent of his career’s success may not be realised until after his retirement.
That’s how long it can take to not just produce a viable new variety but to breed up commercial quantities of seed.
SARDI Grazer actually went commercial in 2010 but building up seed stores to meet demand has taken four years.
The challenge facing Dr Humphries and his team of breeders, pasture scientists, agronomists, livestock producers, animal welfare experts, molecular biologists – and their access to genetic resources and the Australian Pasture Gene Bank at SARDI – can come from anywhere.
As good as their new variety may be the evolution of a virulent super variety of the blue green aphid could prove as dangerous as the spotted alfalfa aphid which all but destroyed the industry back in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“Pests aside, South Australia is the place for the lucerne industry and as we are now Australia’s only state-run research and breeding program we have the backing to do marvellous things here in the future.
And that will keep the world beating a path to Adelaide and SARDI’s front door.