WEST POINT, Iowa — When Turk Regennitter recognized the growing demand for cover crops in Iowa two years ago, he decided to start offering its specific seed varieties to his customers.
"Radishes and ryegrass seem to be in the biggest demand," said Regennitter, general sales manager at Merschman Seeds, Inc. in West Point, adding that "cover crop prices are down about 10 percent."
The growing popularity of Iowa cover crops – praised for their purported ability to capture essential soil nutrients, conserve topsoil, prevent erosion and even improve water quality – has also created an increased demand for their specific seed varieties.
But how are the state’s seed companies handling supplies to meet the demand, especially since most Iowa and other Midwest farmers have only been slowly introducing cover crops into their fields as a part of their agronomic arsenal the past few years?
"It’s difficult to accurately predict demand," said Dave Coppess, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Heartland Co-op in West Des Moines, and Monte Van Wyk, Heartland director of seed sales and marketing, in a joint interview.
They said farmers are reacting to lower grain prices by delaying purchasing decisions – especially the additional costs of cover crops and next year’s input decisions – as one reason for the volatility of cover crop seed.
"Heartland has placed orders with suppliers based on historical sales, factored with some growth expectations for this fall," they said. "We will purchase more seed if demand unfolds beyond our current forecasts."
Dennis McCall, sales manager at Naylor Seed Co. in Scotch Grove, said seed supplies are ample for the Jones County seed company, adding "pricing should also be similar to last year. "I ordered a fair amount of seed this year than I did last year," he said. "Most orders so far – and what I suggest to farmers – are for radishes."
McCall said the kinds of cover seed varieties farmers have been requesting are top turnips, annual crimson and berseem clovers, winter grain rye, winter wheat and oats. However, Coppess and Van Wyk said experiences with the different seed varieties last year varied by field and weather conditions, with many of the best results coming from winter rye, cereal rye and grain rye (versus annual or perennial grass rye) seeded in early fall.
"We saw better germination and stands than the cover planted on preventive acres," they said.
"We acknowledge there is still a lot to be learned about establishing and managing cover crops for optimal results. Nonetheless, Iowa must learn to adopt these practices voluntarily or we will continue to lose soil and nutrients at levels that are unacceptable for farmers and the general public."
Like McCall, Clarke McGrath, Iowa State University extension field agronomist – who previously owned and operated a combined retail seed, propane and fertilizer company for 10 years after his father retired – said cover seed supplies are more than sufficient this fall.
"From what I am hearing, after running short on some seed last year, producers and suppliers ramped up production, and supplies sound like they will be better this year," he said. "(The) early word is pricing is about the same as last year, with supply being better, although I do hear in areas where more cereal rye was raised for seed, the local price is a little lower than last year.
"I think lower grain markets have curbed a little of the cover crop enthusiasm, unfortunately, so that may mean more seed available and may keep the price of cover crop seed suppressed a little," he added.
David Thompson, national and sales marketing director at Stine Seed Co. in Adel, said cereal rye has been between $20-25 per acre; rye grass, $15-20; and tillage radishes, $12-15. Yet Coppess and Van Wyk said Heartland’s initial seed pricing is also similar to last year’s prices.
"However, if demand were to accelerate, seed could get tight and prices would escalate accordingly," they explained. "Our sales team is working with farmers to help them make these decisions ahead of fall demand, when prices could rise due to short supply."
In fact, in Wisconsin some seed varieties may be more readily available than others, said Scott Wohltman, cover crop expert at La Crosse Seed in La Crosse, Wis. "Cereal grains such as fall rye, triticale and spring oats are going fast," he said. "We have secured a significant supply of small grain seed inventory. But the expectation would be that as we get further into the season, supplies will get tight and prices will increase."
As a result, Thompson said seed companies should respond to the demand for cover crop seed by helping promote its use. "It is important to manage cover crops like any other crop to maximize their benefits," he said, "so companies need to specialize in them."