Have you gone into a feed store lately to buy grass seed for your pasture only to discover you might have to take a second mortgage on your farm to pay for it? Have you tried to find something in the grass line to help your pasture, only to learn you need to take a number because it won't be available for about 200 years?
What's going on? Are the grass companies getting together and creating shortages to drive up prices? Are we being bombarded by alien space beams that are destroying our seed production? Is it a Communist plot?
Four major dynamics have taken place in the last two years that have had an enormous impact on the seed industry around the world. To understand the impact of these dynamics, a little background: Today's mixes contain a lot of endophyte-free fescues, included because of their ability to withstand heavy hoof traffic and drought conditions and keep on growing. Another component is orchardgrass. It fills in nicely and makes a lush grass for grazing. Timothy and blue grass round out the rest of the mix. Each species is included for its particular attribute that it brings to the pasture.
DYNAMIC #1: Demand exceeds supply
In the last two years the world demand for fescues has far outstripped the supply. Fescue is used in all kinds of mixtures for grazing animals as well as lawns. Granted, lawn fescue is different than forage fescue but, it is all part of the equation. We thought the supply would not be as tight this year as last, but it seems to not have improved in the past supply year. Prices have reached a level that makes it attractive for farmers to enter the production market again. With increased supply, market conditions take over and prices come down.
DYNAMIC #2: Choking disease
Orchardgrass is being decimated in the U.S. by a disease called choke. As the plant begins to push a seed head, it is attacked at the base of the seed head and literally choked so that no seed forms. As you can imagine, that puts a damper on seed production. There isn't any. Most domestic grass seed production is in Oregon. In years past after harvest, farmers burned their fields to control disease and pestilence. Today that practice has been deemed unacceptable, resulting in production shortages. It has been said that in five years we may not be able to grow orchardgrass in this country anymore. To further add insult to injury, today's high energy forages produce more yield and much better quality, but are not good seed producers. I guess that old saying “you can't have your cake and eat it too” comes home to roost. For example, the old varieties might yield 1200 pounds per acre in seed; many of the new varieties might produce only 300 pounds per acre.
DYNAMIC #3: Renewable fuel frenzy
Congress decided it would be best to get behind the ethanol movement. Now, I'm all for renewable fuels, but let’s put a little thought into this. This problem has been brewing for many years and all of a sudden we're going to fix it overnight? Now farmers are seeing all this financial potential in growing cereal grains. Many have plowed up production fields to plant grain crops to be used in fuel production, resulting in shortages that are impossible to make up in the crop year.
DYNAMIC #4: Rising fuel prices
The price of fuel affects everything we use, from production, to transportation, to end use.
So there you have it, the dreaded four dynamics. The light at the end of the tunnel may not be a freight train, but it will still have an impact in our immediate future.
What is the answer to your seed needs?
I believe we get what we pay for. Today's advanced genetics have improved production and quality to a level that is much higher than in years past. Those varieties were good in their day, but their day has come and gone, just as the new varieties of today will enjoy a limited life. We can count on this; there will always be change whether we want it or not.
Tom Adams lives in central New York. He owns a seed company and speaks on grass and grazing topics throughout the northeast.