Annual ryegrass harvest in Oregon's Willamette Valley. A change in federal policy is expected to increase demand for annual ryegrass seed.
A short-term change in federal policy and other forces are combining to create a run on cover crop seeds in the Midwest.
“We are scouring the industry for any piles of cover crop and forage seeds that are out there,” said Dan Foor, CEO of La Crosse Seed in La Crosse, Wis. “There is a lot of activity and interest.”
In a June 20 notice, the USDA Risk Management Agency announced that farmers who plant cover crops on prevented planting acres will be permitted to hay, graze or chop those fields as of Sept. 1 of this year, rather than the usual Nov. 1 start date.
“We recognize farmers were greatly impacted by some of the unprecedented flooding and excessive rain this spring and we made this one-year adjustment to help farmers with the tough decisions they are facing this year,” Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey said. “This change will make good stewardship of the land easier to accomplish while also providing an opportunity to ensure quality forage is available for livestock this fall.”
Typically, under the federal insurance program, to receive 100% payment, acreage prevented from planting due to an insurable reason, such as flooding, must remain idle or be planted to a cover crop that is not hayed, grazed or otherwise harvested until after Nov. 1. The change, coupled with winter damage to forages, has created the rush on cover crop and forage seeds that is expected to last through the fall planting window, Foor said.
“Unfortunately, supply doesn’t match up with demand right now,” Foor said. “We will get maybe a load or two of a particular variety and it will be sold before it hits our docks.”
Foor said demand has essentially wiped out supplies of species like millets, sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, forage sorghum and other summer annual species that can provide quick forage.
“We saw huge demand early for pea mixes — such as pea oats, pea barley, pea triticale — again from the standpoint of getting quick forage,” he said. “And then, as we have seen things progress here and supplies start to dwindle, we are seeing annual ryegrass in high demand, of course Italian ryegrass was in very high demand, and now it is moving back to small grains like oats.
“As we move into a more traditional cover-crop-type planting scenario, we see demand for brassicas, like turnips or radish, becoming increasingly stronger, in addition to species like Austrian winter peas, vetches, crimson clover, even red clover to help generate some fall forage for producers,” he said.
Foor added that very little carryover is available, forcing Midwest producers to look to new crop to meet cover crop and forage needs.
“There is a lot of dependency on new crop harvest, and one of the big questions is how soon can the radish currently being grown in the Willamette Valley get harvested, cleaned, bagged and shipped back to the Midwest,” Foor said.
No figures were available as of press deadline on how many acres are participating in the RMA prevented planting program this year, but Foor said the industry expects that number to be substantial.
“The last time we experienced this was 2013, and there were several million acres of prevented planting concentrated in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa,” he said.
According to USDA figures, growers enrolled 5.3 million corn and soybean acres in the prevented planting program in 2013.
“Of course, commodity prices were 50 to 60 percent higher than they are now, so there was a more robust farm economy, and there were programs in place to promote cover crop use on these prevented planting acres, programs which we haven’t seen yet but which may come to pass,” Foor said. “The dynamics are different now in that we have more widespread preventing planting, with Ohio and Michigan and Indiana being key states where this is happening.
“And I would suggest that in those areas, there is potential more for things grown in Oregon, like annual ryegrass, because of the latitude,” Foor said.
“At the end of the day, it is going to come back to an acre-by-acre decision for the producer, whether they are: A) going to let that go fallow and not do anything; or B) plant something to get the benefits of cover crops; or C) if they have a market for it, to actually grow cover crop or traditional forage species and either chop, graze or market them,” he said.
“The sense,” he said, “is that there will be significant prevented planting acres.”