After more than a half century of research, the rhizoma perennial peanut is now considered by many growers to be the best perennial warm-weather legume for southeastern states - the "alfalfa of the South."
Developed cooperatively by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and other state and federal agencies, the perennial peanut, Arachis glabrata, is well adapted to the lower South, where its nutritional quality, persistence and broad use are making it a staple pasturage and hay crop at a fraction of alfalfa's cost. Today, rhizoma perennial peanut has become the premium forage for the Gulf Coast.
State and federal cooperators involved in developing A. glabrata included the ARS Subtropical Agricultural Research Station (STARS), Brooksville, Fla.; the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Brooksville Plant Materials Center; and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The collaboration got under way when a collection of A. glabrata accessions from South America was introduced to Florida in the 1930s.
A major breakthrough in perennial peanut research came in the 1980s with the release of Florigraze and Arbrook, which produced much more forage than earlier releases. STARS research leader Sam Coleman and colleagues in Brooksville in the 1980s and 1990s - with former STARS forage agronomist Mimi Williams, now with NRCS in Gainesville, Fla. - demonstrated the nutritional value of A. glabrata to livestock and are widely responsible for its high demand as a hay crop.
Today, perennial peanut's net profit exceeds $500 per acre annually, with demand for hay exceeding production. Current annual sales - predominantly as hay, but also as planting material and ornamentals - exceed $7 million.
Researchers are now seeking ways to combat adaptability problems that make A. glabrata uneconomical when planted for hay or pasturage in wetter soils, or in the region's more northern areas. However, since traditional breeding methods aren't practical because the plant produces very little seed, new plant material is being sought from its native range in South America.