SALEM — Strong markets are translating into more acres planted for grass seed in Oregon, particularly tall fescue and annual ryegrass.
A recent USDA survey shows total grass seed acreage increased 3% statewide, from 316,000 acres harvested in 2018 to 342,000 acres available for harvest in 2019. Tall fescue saw the sharpest increase, from 131,000 acres to 142,000 acres, which included bumps in both forage and turf varieties.
Annual ryegrass increased from 110,000 acres to 115,000 acres, while perennial ryegrass decreased in acreage from 75,000 to 67,000, proving the exception to overall growth.
Bryan Ostlund, administrator of the Oregon Tall Fescue, Fine Fescue and Ryegrass commissions, said the survey results are not surprising, given how tall fescue and annual ryegrass seed have displaced more perennial ryegrass due to improved genetics and emerging markets.
"We've seen a variety of things that have happened out there," Ostlund said. "It's a real mixed bag."
For example, tall fescue seed is pushing farther north and displacing perennial ryegrass in areas like the Northeastern U.S. Ostlund said the genetics of tall fescue grass are being fine-tuned to increase drought tolerance, narrow blade width and change color to a darker, more desirable shade of green.
Prices for tall fescue are hitting their peak, up to 85.5 cents per pound last year for turf-type seed versus just 28 cents per pound around the 2008 recession, according to the Oregon Grass Seed Bargaining Association, which negotiates prices with seed dealers.
"When commodity prices are that strong, it just makes sense that we see more acres coming in," Ostlund said.
Annual ryegrass is also displacing perennial ryegrass for forage in cattle pastures, Ostlund said, and has been recognized by researchers at the University of Kentucky as a viable cover crop to improve soil health and reduce erosion in the Midwest.
Nearly all U.S. annual ryegrass seed is grown in Oregon.
With more acres planted this season, Ostlund said the big question now is how an unseasonably dry fall in the Willamette Valley might affect yields during harvest later this summer.
Fall weather was not kind to local grass seed farmers. Between October and January, Salem's overall precipitation measured 14.8 inches, which is about 7 inches below average. Then along came February, which dropped 7.09 inches of moisture, second-most for the month since 2000.
"That fall moisture can dictate quite a bit what those yields are going to be like," Ostlund said.
Mark Simmons, executive director of the grass seed bargaining association, said tall fescue fields are looking poor to start, and growers may be anticipating another short year.
"We did not get the fall rains that would help us get a good tall fescue crop," Simmons said.
The USDA acreage survey is voluntary, Simmons said, and something the association uses to help keep supply and demand in balance. Both he and Ostlund said they expect perennial ryegrass will turn around soon, as farmers adjust to the market.
As for whether grass seed acres will continue to increase, Ostlund said that could be difficult as more Willamette Valley growers are diversifying into growing other high-value crops like hazelnuts, blueberries and, possibly, industrial hemp.
"It will make for an interesting mix," he said. "We see farms diversifying so their eggs are not all in one basket."