Cover crop goal a stretch for seed growers, expert says

By MITCH LIES

For the Capital Press

Oregon will have to greatly boost its seed production to meet a goal for cover crop usage in the Midwest, an Oregon State Unviersity extension agent says.

ALBANY, Ore. — Oregon’s Willamette Valley supplies seed for a large percentage of what is becoming a dynamic Midwest cover crop market. But it will take increased yields and a good understanding of that market to meet future demands, according to an Oregon State University extension agent.

In a seed production meeting here Jan. 7, south Willamette Valley field crops extension agent Paul Marquardt told growers he doubts cover crop advocates can meet a professed goal of having 100 million acres in the Midwest planted to cover crops by 2025.

But, Marquardt said, even at half that acreage, it will be difficult for Willamette Valley growers to meet the demand.

“Bumping up yields through different management strategies and through breeding will be a key if we’re going to produce quality seed for the cover crop market,” Marquardt said.

“Understanding how Oregon seed production practices affect cover crop seed quality is essential as this market is increasing,” Marquardt said, “and increasing Oregon seed yields also is going to be essential.”

Marquardt is familiar with Midwest agriculture through studies at Purdue University, where he received a master’s degree in entomology and a doctorate in weed science.

“Getting the right species out there, tweaking varieties that we are producing here in the Willamette Valley and working with the Midwest to get the right species and the right cover crops that they want in their fields is going to be key,” Marquardt said.

To date, Willamette Valley growers produce seed of three of the top four cover crops in the Midwest, including brassicas, primarily radish; legumes, primarily clovers; and annual ryegrass.

“A lot of that seed is coming out of this valley,” Marquardt said.

Midwest growers currently plant cover crops on 1.5 million to 2 million acres, Marquardt said, primarily to break up soil compaction. Other big reasons, according to a survey of about 700 growers, are erosion control, to add nutrients to the soil, increase soil moisture-holding capacity and suppress weeds.

The radish, clovers and annual ryegrass seed that Oregon sells into that market meets many of those needs, he said, further indicating that the market for Oregon-grown cover crop seeds isn’t likely to dissipate.

Oregon growers in 2012 produced 284 million pounds of annual ryegrass seed, Marquardt said. The seed is used for turf, forage and erosion control, in addition to cover crops.

Growers also produced 12.8 million pounds of red clover seed, 7.6 million pounds of crimson clover seed and 3.3 million pounds of white clover seed. Clovers are used primarily for forage, in addition to cover crop usage.

Marquardt called the goal of expanding Midwest cover crop acreage to 100 million by 2025 “really lofty.”

“Considering you’re talking about 250 to 300 million acres of corn and soybean production in that area, to get to one-third of that, I don’t see that happening in the next 10-plus years,” Marquardt said. “I don’t think we’re going to get to that point.”

“But even at 50 million acres, I don’t think the Willamette Valley is going to be able to produce enough seed to accomplish this goal at our current levels of production,” he said.