Crimson clover catches on
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Brenda Kirsch nearly doubled her crimson clover acreage this year and expects the market may prompt her to plant more in the future.
Aside from the crop's agronomic benefits, demand for the seed among farmers in the Midwest seems to have a lot of growth potential, she said.
"With the decent price, it looks like a good rotation crop for guys here," she said.
Kirsch and other farmers in Oregon's Willamette Valley often plant it after grass seed and wheat crops, helping to suppress weeds like annual bluegrass due to broader herbicide options.
"The ability to clean up a field is just invaluable," she said.
It has recently been increasing in popularity as a cover crop among corn and soybean growers in the Midwest due to the plant's ability to fix nitrogen and improve compacted soils.
"It helps break that hard pan up and filters the water," said Scott Banyard, seed specialist at Marion Ag Service, which cleans crimson clover seed and connects growers with marketers.
Increasing usage has brought higher prices to farmers, who can sell the seed for $1.25-$1.30 per pound -- historically, the crop fetched 60 cents to 80 cents per pound, according to several sources contacted for this story.
At this point, though, grower inventories of last year's crop are largely diminished, said Troy Rodakowski, production manager at Forbes Seed & Grain in Junction City, Ore.
"I'd have a hard time finding a substantial quantity," he said.
Due to strong prices, grains competed strongly for acreage with crimson clover last year and limited production despite healthy demand, Rodakowski said.
Scarce supplies of crimson clover have generated interest in the crop in 2013, however, he said. "I think there are definitely more acres, the reason being that people know there wasn't a lot of carryover."
If output of crimson clover climbs in coming years, that would bring down prices, but the softening effect will likely be mild after this summer's harvest, Rodakowski said.
"It's not going to take a nose dive or anything," he said.
In the Midwest, the practice of using cover crops is more common among "no till" farmers, who use them to control erosion, enhance water infiltration and promote root depth in following corn and soybean crops, said Don Wirth, a farmer in Tangent, Ore.
Crimson clover is generally sold as a nitrogen-fixing bonus in seed mixes that often include annual ryegrass, he said. "The clover is a sideline. It's a way to sell the ryegrass."
Ryegrass creates deep channels that can later be exploited by corn and soybean crops, and the cover crop helps shade those roots during heat, he said.
Cover crops have been promoted by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and local soil and water conservation districts, but their popularity has grown largely due to word of mouth, said Nick Bowers, a farmer in Harrisburg, Ore., and co-owner of the KB Seed Solutions marketing company.
"Neighbors learning from neighbors has been as effective as anything," he said.
Even with the rising prominence of cover crops, probably fewer than 1 percent of Midwestern growers use them, Wirth said. If that level someday reaches 20 percent, which is realistic, the market opportunity for seeds is great.
For crimson clover, the jury is still out whether added nitrogen from the crop justifies the expense of the seed, he said.
"It has the potential to be a fairly significant nitrogen asset," but its fertilizer value is highly dependent on timing, said Dan Towery, owner of the Ag Conservation Solutions consultancy firm.
Blooming crimson clover can add up to 130 pounds of nitrogen per acre, but many farmers don't want to delay planting until it develops flowers in May, he said.
However, some farmers are buying time by planting corn into the living clover and waiting to kill it off until after the seed has germinated, Towery said.
"There's a heck of a lot of interest, especially if we can come up with varieties that can bloom earlier," he said.