There are a few moments in any story where the course of history is altered. Some are intentional and others happen by accident. For Mark McCaslin, the R&D lead at Forage Genetics International (FGI), a career in alfalfa is one of those accidental things. As he tells it, he stumbled into an alfalfa field while studying at UC Davis, discovered an affinity for the perennial plant and ended up doing his academic training in forages.
That happy accident has turned into a legendary career.
"In corn and soybean breeding the science is pretty well established", says Mark. "Alfalfa breeding presents novel challenges... You harvest the whole plant rather than fruit or seeds, it is a perennial rather than an annual and it is a tetraploid, making the breeding complicated. It's always exciting to me to have things to learn and explore."
The success FGI, a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O'Lakes, Inc., has had since its founding in 1991 is grounded in learning and exploring. It's no accident. Mark has been there since the founding moment when FGI was among 10-12 breeding companies focused on improving the forage dairy cows need to produce our milk. This was back when the average yearly milk production of a dairy cow, according to the USDA, was 14,860 pounds of milk.
Today, the average yearly production is 22,393 pounds of milk and there are only three forage breeding companies. FGI has been a consolidator, and every few years they've brought in new talent, brands and genetics to service the whole industry through their portfolio. FGI's focus on scientific discovery and innovation in alfalfa has—and is—leading to a diversified and unique portfolio of forage products.
But there is something else that sets FGI's story apart—it is an R&D-based company with a strong commercial footing that keeps the producer in mind at every step.
"It's a strength for FGI to have such a strong R&D focus that is so focused on adding value to the producer and system," says Shawn Barnett, general manager of FGI since 2015.
Milestone moment: Going biotech
It was the focus on producers' needs that altered the course of FGI's history in 1998.
"That's when FGI became a biotech company," says Mark. "We started working with Monsanto on RoundUp Ready alfalfa as their breeding and trait development partner. It changed everything. That success has led to other traits, including HarvXtra in 2016."
The FGI team is the first—and only—team to successfully commercialize a biotech trait in alfalfa. For the record, they have two—RoundUp Ready and HarvXtra. In fact, HarvXtra, reduced-lignin alfalfa, is really the first biotech trait—of all biotech traits—focused on enhancing quality by reducing an element—lignin—that impacts the digestibility of the forage for cows. Traits to this point have focused on better weed management or killing an insect pest. It's this record of firsts that makes FGI a popular collaborator.
"We've never been involved in genetic trait discovery. We are a collaborator with trait discovery companies. We put traits into products and then do everything from field testing to commercialization," says Mark. "If anyone in the world today says, 'we have an interesting trait for forage crops,' they come to us."
Big investments in the big three
Alfalfa. Corn silage. Forage sorghum. These are the three core forage crops.
"We want to be a holistic forage provider to our customers. That means the big three." "Alfalfa doesn't grow on every acre. Corn silage grows in most acres, and we've done some work there over the last decade. Forage sorghum does well in hot, dry climates."
Delivering all three sets the business up to serve all of the unique geographies with the U.S., as well as explore international opportunities. And while other companies are stepping away from alfalfa and forages, Shawn says Land O'Lakes is all in.
While the business has been known as an alfalfa powerhouse, the corn silage and forage sorghum haven't been as strong a focus...until now. This year, which just so happens to be the company's 25th anniversary, has provided more history altering moments.
In January, FGI acquired the remaining stake in Global Seed Genetics, a maize genetics company based in Mexico that focuses on breeding high quality maize seed for tropical markets around the world.
In May, the long-term collaboration with Monsanto in alfalfa evolved. FGI purchased Monsanto's stake in the commercial rights to the RoundUp Ready and HarvXtra traits and the enabling technology for alfalfa and corn silage. This puts the company in position to realize the full value of current alfalfa biotech offerings in addition to innovation in future alfalfa and corn silage offerings.
In June, Ceres, Inc., an agricultural biotechnology company that develops and markets seeds and traits to produce animal feed came into the fold. They have strength in discovery and lab testing where FGI's strength lies in field testing to commercialization. Complementary skill sets. They also bring specialization in forage sorghum, helping complete the portfolio.
The path ahead
The strategic investments in 2016 set FGI up for the next quarter century of innovation and forage leadership. It's no accident.
"It that it took us 10 years to commercialize RoundUp Ready," says Mark. "From the ah-ha moment to commercialization is 10 years, and we're doing the next investment now to reap rewards a decade out." The great news is that we have things in pipeline between now and then."
From increasing forage yield and quality with products that work across geographies to exploring the application of forage in biofuels, FGI is set up for growth.
"We're a team of about 150 people," says Shawn. "We produce and sell 30-35 million pounds of seed. For most of those products, we own it all the way from the petri dish to the field. With this team, I'm confident that we are absolutely going to be the best forage supplier in the nation—and the world. It just makes sense for a company founded and invested in dairy to lead in forage."