Overall, U.S. alfalfa seed supplies for 2008 plantings should be adequate but a little tight, said seed industry representatives. For certain, the seed will cost more.
Non-dormant varieties will likely be short globally, and for U.S. growers, tight. Supplies of cold-hardy dormant varieties should be sufficient, most experts said in late September. Common or economy seed supplies will likely be tighter than normal and of lower quality than in recent years.
So don't procrastinate. Buy seed soon, preferably from reputable seed companies, and have it delivered soon after ordering it, some company spokespersons advised.
“We're reasonably optimistic, but the seed harvest isn't complete yet,” said Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics. “Areas that are most vulnerable, the ones that harvest late, have not yet been harvested. But the majority of the crop is in, and from what I'm hearing, is average in yield at best. That's too bad because the industry would have benefited from a bumper crop of alfalfa seed this year.”
Instead, it was a bummer. An early spring court injunction halting the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa forced companies to scramble to grow conventional seed.
Alfalfa seed production acreage also shifted geographically, said Tom Miles, Target Seeds national sales manager, Parma, ID. The Treasure Valley, near Boise, has been the heart of alfalfa seed production. But an oversupply four to five years ago drove down prices. Low prices, urban sprawl and higher land values forced many seed producers out of business.
“Some acres were replaced in states like Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. But major production areas in Nevada, Washington and eastern Oregon saw seed acres disappear due to higher-value crops with less risk. Some companies chose to take some production to Canada,” Miles said.
In Canada, however, the weather didn't cooperate this year. A late spring freeze “wiped out” some seed production, said Dan Undersander, extension forage specialist from the University of Wisconsin. An early frost the first part of September didn't help, added McCaslin.
“I understand it nipped the cropin northern Saskatchewan and northern Alberta, so that common crop from the northern part of the prairie provinces was hit. I think Canadian crop yields will be lighter than average,” McCaslin said.
With the U.S. dollar now about equal in value to Canada's, Canadian growers no longer have an economic advantage over U.S. producers in growing alfalfa seed, said Mike Velde, alfalfa breeder at Dairyland Seed. “I have heard that a lot of their seed production acres have been rotated to other crops. Another thing: Many of the present generation of Canadian seed growers are older and getting out of the alfalfa seed business.”
Other seed production areas suffered, too, said McCaslin. “Much of the Pacific Northwest had record heat this summer, right during pollination season. This led to an early harvest and hurt seed yield somewhat.”
Another obvious factor affecting seed supply: a shift to planting higher-value corn.
“Overall, the alfalfa seed industry is going to be in pretty good shape (supply-wise). One of the big reasons is the increase in corn acres,” said Kirk Rolfs, Pioneer Hi-Bred's senior agronomist. “A lot of farmers planted corn this year rather than alfalfa, and probably everybody's sales on alfalfa were off. So I think we're going to be okay on supply because we didn't consume as much as we'd anticipated.”
The shift to producing corn on alfalfa acres also contributed to a hay shortage. That change, along with a drought, led many domestic common seed growers to harvest hay rather than the seed, said Velde. “There will be little if any U.S. economy seed harvested because they needed the hay.”
The cost difference between common vs. premium seed will be lower than normal because the common seed supply is shorter than it's been in the past, noted Undersander. “When the spread is small, the yield and stand advantage of the premium seed is even more economic.”
Most non-dormant alfalfa seed is produced in Australia, hit three years in a row with severe drought, and California's Imperial Valley. Imperial Valley seed growers can choose between producing hay or seed from the same land, McCaslin said. “Hay prices have been high, but seed prices have been up because of the shortage, so I think more seed was harvested this year.“ There is a global shortage of non-dormants, but the U.S. non-dormant alfalfa seed supply will be tight but adequate, he said.
Higher seed prices are a sure thing, said Miles. “We're paying significantly more money today to our seed growers to raise this alfalfa seed.” Fuel and fertilizer costs, plus competition from other crops, made that a necessity.