Cover crop seed demand rises as competition squeezes supply

Fierce competition for acreage in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is limiting the supply of cover crop seed just as demand is increasing.

Seed growers haven’t planted as many acres of cover crops, including clover and radish, due to expectations of higher returns for wheat and grass seed, said Jerry Hall, president of GO Seed in Salem, Ore.

“A lot of the shortage is market-driven,” he said.

Clover and other legumes fix nitrogen, helping farmers reduce fertilizer expenses, while cover crops generally improve soil health, potentially decreasing the need for other farm inputs as well, experts say.

Clover and other legumes fix nitrogen, helping farmers reduce fertilizer expenses, while cover crops generally improve soil health, potentially decreasing the need for other farm inputs as well, experts say.

Meanwhile, the USDA aims to double cover crop plantings by corn and soybean farmers to 30 million acres in less than a decade to reduce erosion and sequester carbon.

“Where’s the seed going to come from?” wonders Gary Weaver, owner of Weaver Seed of Oregon near Scio, Ore. “We won’t have a problem producing it if the price is right.”

Because cover crops are typically planted for agronomic reasons rather than to generate revenue, prices for seed must remain cost-effective for farmers.

That constraint can pose an economic dilemma for the cover crop industry, since seed producers often need a financial incentive to expand their acreage.

“How do we keep that seed affordable for the farmer on the other side?” Hall asked. “It’s a balancing act to keep it affordable.”

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a popular seed production area, the acreage of cover crops grown for seed has plunged about 50% since last year due to competition, Weaver said.

“There’s going to be shortages for the next few years as long as this wheat price stays up,” Weaver said. “You can’t blame the farmers.”

In light of soaring prices for competing commodities, as well as fuel and fertilizer, the outlook for cover crop seeds is tough to predict, he said.

“We don’t know where it’s going,” Weaver said.

Based on the drop in Oregon’s acreage, a seed shortage is likely looming in the near term, he said.

At the same time, the popularity of cover crops is taking off, Weaver said. One of the company’s seed dealers expects sales to climb 20% this year.

“The innovators have done their job,” Weaver said. “The neighbors are looking over the fence.”

The USDA is promoting the conservation benefits of cover crops by offering farmers reduced insurance premiums and other incentives to plant them.

However, the USDA can further help farmers by advising which cover crop varieties will perform well under their growing conditions, Hall said.

Currently, the agency doesn’t make such recommendations to avoid being perceived as a “shill” for any particular producers, but site-appropriate seed is key in helping cover crops succeed, he said.

One possible solution would be a national cover crop testing program to examine how different varieties perform across agricultural regions, Hall said. “We need to get more information to the farmer.”

Competition from other crops isn’t the only factor affecting the seed supply.

Production is also dependent on specialized seed-cleaning equipment for cover crops, he said. “It’s more than just replacing the screens.”

Historically, seed producers have often been reluctant to make the additional investments, Hall said.

“Apparently, we’re not as good at hyping cover crops as we are hemp,” he joked.

Seed producers also benefit agronomically from growing cover crop seed, since they can suppress weeds, Hall said. Less herbicide spraying and soil tillage means fewer passes over the field, cutting fuel usage as well.

“If we add to the rotation, instead of doing grass after grass after grass, we’re going to clean up those fields,” he said.

While legumes fix nitrogen, cover crops like radish can alleviate fertilizer expenses by “scavenging” nutrients that would otherwise leach into the ground, said Chad Weaver, general manager of Weaver Seed.

As the plant decays, those nutrients then become available for the next season’s crop, he said. “You’re going to buy less commercial fertilizer.”

In areas with scarce water or declining aquifers, cover crops help retain moisture by reducing runoff and increasing absorption, Chad Weaver said. Evaporation is also decreased compared to bare ground.

“The sun’s not beating down on the soil,” he said. “It keeps it cooler.”

Boosting beneficial insects and microbes while fully reaping other rewards typically takes about three to five years of planting cover crops, Chad Weaver said.

“You’re basically building the project,” he said. “It’s got to be consecutive years and sticking to that program.”

Originally published in the Capital Press, 6/14/2022