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Research Helps Midwest Farmers Expand into New Markets / April 29, 1999 / News from the USDA Agricultural Research Service

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Dr. Koegel expresses juice from transgenic alfalfa

Research Helps Midwest Farmers Expand into New Markets

By Linda McGraw
April 29, 1999

WASHINGTON, April 29--Growing nitrogen-fixing alfalfa is not only good for the soil, but it also may help Midwest farmers reap economic benefits and supply materials for new industrial uses.

Richard G. Koegel, an agricultural engineer with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Madison, Wisconsin, and University of Wisconsin researchers are the first scientists to make lactic acid from alfalfa. Lactic acid, now used in foods as a flavoring or preservative, could become a key ingredient in biodegradable plastics, Koegel said.

“Producing quality products from agricultural crops without depleting our land is the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture for all farmers--big and small,” says ARS administrator Floyd P. Horn. “Sustainable agriculture helps farmers put more money in their pockets and less into production costs for fertilizers and pesticides.”

Alfalfa is valuable in sustainable agriculture because it fixes its own nitrogen. That means farmers don’t have to add nitrogen fertilizer, thus saving money. Previous ARS studies have demonstrated that farmers can reap higher yields of corn and soybeans when they plant those crops in rotation with alfalfa.

Extracting lactic acid from alfalfa would give farmers added incentive to grow the crop. Lactic acid is now made synthetically with chemicals or organically as a byproduct of corn fermentation. More than half of the U.S. lactic acid market--about 50,000 tons--is currently imported.

Koegel has devised a method for making lactic acid from alfalfa fiber, which is left after the juice is extracted from fresh herbage. His laboratory trials have produced yields of lactic acid as high as 60 percent.

Koegel is based at the U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Cooperative research between ARS and the University of Wisconsin has also produced industrially valuable enzymes from transgenic alfalfa. After extracting the juice from fresh herbage, the researchers have made other high-value products, including food- and feed-grade proteins, and nutritionally valuable substances called carotenoids. All these products from alfalfa have a value between $1,000 to $2,000 per acre annually.

A story about the lactic acid research appears in the May issue of Agricultural Research, ARS’ monthly magazine. The article is available on the web at:

http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/may99/acid0599.htm

Scientific contact: Richard G. Koegel, ARS U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, Madison, Wis., 53706, phone (608) 264-5149, fax (608) 264-5275, rgkoegel@facstaff.wisc.edu.

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