But common seed has been hard-hit, according to industry experts
The supply of proprietary alfalfa seed looks adequate to good and prices should be about the same or slightly higher than last year's, say alfalfa seed breeders. The price gap between proprietary and economy or common seed, however, is expected to narrow.
“The economy alfalfa supply will be very short,” says Mike Velde, Dairyland Seed alfalfa breeder. “It's not going to be that cheap anymore. The Canadian crop is down; it hasn't had a conducive growing season.”
“We hear similar things,” says Cal/West Seeds President-CEO Paul Frey about the common seed supply. “It may be that the cost of some of those products will go up because the really low-cost or cheap seed that often is there isn't as abundant. And what is there is going to cost more.”
The major alfalfa seed breeders — Cal/West Seeds, Dairyland Seed, Forage Genetics and Pioneer Hi-Bred International — typically contract their seed production two years in advance.
“We've got a good supply overall,” says Robin Newell, Pioneer forage business manager. “We have the elite, high-yielding winterhardy varieties, high-forage-quality varieties and leafhopper-resistant varieties, so we're aiming to hit the demand in each of those categories.” If a grower can't get a specific variety, other varieties within one of those categories will be available, he adds.
Winterhardy dormant varieties are in good supply for Cal/West's marketers, Frey says. “On the non-dormant side, we have, this past year, increased our production substantially. So we also have good supplies of our non-dormant varieties.”
Velde says Dairyland's supply will be adequate as well. He encourages growers to maintain their usual crop rotations. “If the alfalfa stands need to come out, take them out, take the nitrogen credits in corn and grow a bigger corn crop, because you will get more yield in your corn rotating after alfalfa vs. leaving it another year,” he says.
Determining the supply of conventional seed the past few years has been difficult, and that's largely been due to the uncertain fate of Roundup Ready alfalfa. At this point, the transgenic alfalfa is on hold. After a 2007 court injunction stopped the sale of the alfalfa, introduced to growers in 2005, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was required to prepare and publish a detailed environmental impact statement on the crop. At presstime, a draft EIS hadn't yet been made available for public comment.
“There will be customers who want the Roundup Ready and customers who want conventional varieties. Part of our business process is to try to understand the markets and the total need of each category. So when Roundup Ready is deregulated again, we'll approach it like any of our categories and try to right-size our inventory appropriately,” says Pioneer's Newell.
If Roundup Ready alfalfa is not allowed back on the market, the use of transgenics in the crop could be halted or severely slowed, according to some university experts who have argued for the deregulation of the crop.
“We are actively working on a number of very important traits that we bring to the crop using biotechnology, so we're a strong supporter of biotechnology to improve the alfalfa crop,” Cal/West's Frey says. “Specific to Roundup Ready, we are in a position to sell seed if it comes back on the market. The truth is, no one knows what the outcome will be at this point in time, so we have to be prepared to go forward with or without Roundup Ready.”