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Short Supply of Seed for Cover Crops

Late last spring, Donnie Conway of Melrose, Iowa, wanted to plant pearl millet in his fencerows for erosion control, wildlife habit, and forage for his cow/calf herd. He struggled to find seed. “I finally found some sorghum Sudan grass that fit my needs,” says Conway, 25. “But it had to be a bad situation for those who really needed it.”

Among those who needed it were farmers needing roots in the ground to repair soil damaged by floods. As floodwaters receded, thoughts of planting a traditional crop receded along with them. Farmers scrambled to plant a cover crop to protect what was left of their soil on nearly 15 million acres. The USDA stepped in by adjusting Federal Crop Insurance Prevented Planting deadlines for grazing and forage harvesting on the flooded ground.

The move put even more strain on limited seed supplies of forage ryegrasses, pearl millets, and warm-season grasses such as forage sorghums and sorghum Sudan grass. 

Short hay stocks, winter kill, and early spring flooding in the eastern Grain Belt had added to demand, as did an early 2018 Midwest harvest that encouraged planting more cover crop acres. Demand was countered with short seed harvests coming out of Oregon and the Dakotas.

“In June, we were hearing that prevented-planting acres to the east were going to use up any old crop of oats, rye, and wheat,” says Sarah Carlson, strategic initiatives director for Practical Farmers of Iowa. “Supplies were headed out the door for many summer grasses, as well.”

By late July, the summer planting window had passed, and farmers focused on planting fall cover crops like winter rye, winter wheat, oats, tillage radishes, and legumes that flourish better in cooler soils. A new seed crop was becoming available. It offered some – but little – hope.

“The yields coming out of this year’s small grain harvest are average even though spring and summer conditions were good,” says Carlson. “Low humidity and cool overnight temperatures allow small grain crops to take their time to develop and grow. Outside of Iowa, this is the norm, but some oat growers in the Dakotas couldn’t even get their crops in the field. We are hearing cereal rye yields in the upper end of normal around 50 to 60 bushels per acre, but oats are average and seem to have low test weight.” 

Seed dealers expect supply to remain tight in the face of demand, selling out or coming close to selling out by fall, especially with some flooded farmers planting their fall cover a bit early instead of a summer cover as fields are just now drying.

Conway is hoping he can get the seed he needs. He’s entered into a trial of a new variety of rye that will supply him with 40 acres worth of seed. That will help. He especially needs tillage radishes for some “hard ground” coming out of CRP.

A Continued Crunch

his year’s crisis, if not averted, at least appears somewhat under control. But the cover crop supply chain remains precarious. Like the average middle- class household that lives one to two emergency expenses away from financial crisis, the cover crop seed supply is only a couple bad crop years or dramatic increases in seed demand away from exhaustion.

“If we plan to seed 12.5 million acres of cover crops every fall to meet Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals, we need old crop available,” says Carlson. “We need to move from using everything we grow in three months after small grain harvest to growing enough to have carryover for next year. Without that, we are at Mother Nature’s mercy during the small grain season.”

Cover crop use is on the rise, and production is barely keeping pace. The Census of Agriculture shows 15.4 million acres of cover crops planted nationwide in 2017, an increase of 50% from 2012.

“It’s exciting to see more forage options and people trying new things, and it’s great we have cost-share programs to encourage it,” says Conway. “But there is no way for seed companies to estimate demand for the next year.”

In Iowa, cover crop use has nearly doubled from 2015 to 2017, with the encouragement of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a plan to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus heading down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico by 45%. Almost 1 million acres of cover crop were planted in 2018. The ultimate goal is 12.5 million acres. “As cover crop acres continue to grow, we’re going to start to push capacity,” says Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. “In the short term, there are likely to be local challenges.” 

The simple, yet not so simple, answer is to grow more seed. “There is opportunity for farmers here,” says Naig. Carlson says it will take around .5 million acres to meet projected demand, compared with the 100,000 acres now in use. Groups like the Practical Farmers of Iowa, as well as state Extension services, are ramping up education to increase cover crop seed production.

Conway would like to jump on board. Equipment needs and processing don’t scare him. It’s a reasonable investment. But land is hard to find in his neck of the woods. “I have to look at the whole farming operation and do the best with what I have,” he says.

Naig and Carlson are both aware any effort to increase cover crop seed production comes with quality-control infrastructure. NRCS allows farm-raised seed, but it needs to be properly cleaned and germination-tested at a certified lab. Carlson says some producers may find it is worth paying the seed royalties in exchange for higher yields.

“Farmers need to know how to participate in the growing, cleaning, and handling of seed,” says Naig. His staff is addressing regulation, keeping in mind farmers’ need for ease in participation. “There need to be minimum standards. Labels need to mean something.”

To meet cover crop production needs, Carlson sees a burgeoning industry taking hold. One example is Iowa Cover Crop, billed as a full service cover crop business. It provides consultation, product procurement and preparation, and application logistics. Established seed companies are also responding, increasing warehouse capability and looking to increase acres from their growers. 

“The cover crop seed industry is growing, as it should,” says Naig. “We need that private-sector response.” 

Innovation is taking hold. In the Upper Mississippi Valley, small grain breeders from six land grant universities, coordinated by Practical Farmers of Iowa, have joined forces to compile data from regional small grain variety yield trials to create a database searchable by zip code. That way, farmers can identify the varieties that are good for their area.

Getting Seed Now

Conway is focused on getting through the coming winter with plants in the ground to protect his soil and to feed his cattle. He hopes he will be able to purchase available seed at a price that doesn’t destroy his profit margin. The last rye seed he purchased cost $11 per bushel, which is about 1 acre’s worth. Dealers are estimating costs for fall seed could hit $18 to $25 per acre.

Farmers are being urged to identify priorities, book seed orders early, and have a second choice in mind. 

“It’s always good advice to line up seed early,” says Carlson. “That’s good business and planning. That’s even more important as bottlenecks occur.”

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