"Hay growers should line up the seed they'll need this year immediately."

That's the advice of Paul Baumer, president of Cal-West Seeds, Woodland, CA.

"Growers who wait to buy seed until the day they need it will have to plant their second or third choices or settle for a lower-yielding seed blend or older materials," says Baumer, who also heads the Certified Alfalfa Seed Council.

His call for action stems from a worldwide seed shortage that's been building for the past couple of years.

Baumer's comments apply mainly to seed of non-dormant varieties grown in the Southwest. Most industry experts say supplies of dormant varieties should be adequate, although some companies won't have enough seed of their most popular varieties.

Look for small price increases.

"We've increased our prices, and I think the whole industry has," says Bruce Ceranske, general manager of W-L Research, Evansville, WI. "Growers charged us more to grow seed, so we have to raise prices to accommodate those increases."

In the Pacific Northwest, where dormant-seed production is centered, growers were paid 5 cents/lb more in 1997 than in '96, says Baumer.

Increased seed exports are one reason for the critical shortage of non-dormant varieties. Production problems in California, where most of that seed is produced, get some of the blame, too. California seed producers have been plagued by bad weather and insect pressure.

California seed yields averaged 554 lbs/acre in 1997 vs. 581 lbs in '96, says Shannon Mueller, a University of California farm advisor.

"Even varieties that were once known for their excellent seed production - around 1,000 lbs per acre - are now yielding significantly less," Mueller reports.

About 90% of the non-dormant seed produced in California is grown in the San Joaquin Valley. That area was plagued by flooding last year, and problems with insects, namely lygus, are worsening.

"Lygus is the biggest culprit in seed production," says Mueller. "If we could conquer the lygus, we could be back to where we were a few years ago."

Much of California's alfalfa seed acreage has been replaced by other crops.

"Economics is a major factor," says Mueller. "Seed producers often can grow other crops with less risk and more opportunity for profit."

However, Mueller is optimistic that supplies will have an upturn in 1998.

"Cotton used to be more profitable to grow than alfalfa seed, but that situation has changed," she says.

"Plus, seed companies are modifying their contracts to make it more profitable for growers to raise alfalfa seed."