Cover Crops in Demand

Late-Summer Surge Possible

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Some cover crops, like the annual ryegrass on this Kentucky field, may be in short supply this year thanks to a drought on the West Coast. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith

ST. LOUIS (DTN) -- When a truckload of seed arrived at Green Cover Seed's Nebraska headquarters this week, co-owner Keith Berns got a soggy surprise: A flash flood had breached the bottom of the truck's hoppers at an overnight stop in mid-Missouri and soaked some of the seed.

While the incident resulted in minimal losses, the experience was par for the course in a year when wet weather conditions have left some crop fields unplanted across the Midwest. Berns and other cover crop seed companies are cautiously anticipating a rise in seed sales in the coming weeks, even as the drought out West promises to limit some supplies.

"We've gotten a lot of calls and have stocked up on additional seeds in anticipation of additional orders, but we'll see," Berns told DTN. "We've seen a small rise in sales so far, but not yet as significant as the potential we know is out there."

Many farmers are still sorting out their options, agreed Mike Cowan, a seed salesman for Missouri Southern Seed. Cowan said the office has received "a flood" of calls from dealers and growers that could signal a future wave of fall cover crop seed sales. "We will probably see a lot of cover crops planted here in August and September," he said. "There are a lot of untouched acres that have not seen a tractor so far this year."

EYEING SUPPLIES

Some shortages of seed are possible -- but not necessarily from increased demand. Much of the Midwest's cover crop seed supply comes from West Coast states like Oregon and Idaho, which have been plagued by a dry spring and summer this year.

Nick Bowers is wrapping up a below-average harvest of various cover seeds for Oregon-based cover crop company, KB Seed Solutions, where he works as director of operations. Annual ryegrass, a popular cover option for its extensive root system and nitrogen-scavenging abilities, will be the hardest hit.

"Depending where you're at, we're anywhere from 10% to 30% off our yields here," Bowers said. Hairy vetch supplies may also be shorter than usual, he added.

Thanks to carryover from last year, Bowers said KB Seed is expecting good availability of brassica covers such as radishes and turnips. Midwestern supplies of those crops will soon be replenished as the West Coast harvest is finishing early, Berns said.

In anticipation of corn and soybean acres lost to flooding, Berns stocked up on long-growing Southern soybean varieties. The Group 7 beans will grow vegetatively for longer than shorter-season ones, which will maximize nitrogen fixation and the carbon left in the soil, he said. The beans have the added benefit of fitting into growers' corn and soybean rotation, and they can be planted after soybean herbicide applications -- a major limitation on cover crop options for many growers this summer.

WAITING ON -- AND HOPING FOR -- A RUSH

Bowers isn't convinced that cover crop seed sales will see a boost from the flooded Midwest. "We're anticipating similar numbers to the last couple of years," he told DTN. Delayed planting this year and last year has "maybe discouraged the new cover crop user from getting started because harvest was late last year and will be late again this year," which complicates the planting of fall covers, he explained.

In the Midwest, the mood is more optimistic. Berns said he is anticipating a 15% to 20% increase in sales, some of which is already underway.

Producers with both prevented planting acres and cattle are his most likely and reliable market, he said. "It's a no-brainer for them to put something in that they can graze after Nov. 1," he said, referencing the insurance deadline for haying and grazing cover crops on prevented planting acres.

Yet those sales are mostly still weeks away. "If you want good grazing in November and December, you don't want to plant the cover crop until the first week of August, and you want cool-season species -- oats, peas, turnips and radishes -- things that won't die with the first frost," he explained.

Cowan said his company is expecting to see an increase in sales later in the season, as well, but noted that lower commodity prices have made some farmers wary of additional expenses, especially if they're new to covers. "I don't think every bare acre is going to see cover crops," he said. "There are still a lot of farmers who have not committed yet because they see them as an additional cost rather than something that will set more nitrogen for them or collect other nutrients and hold them there for their next cash crop."

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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Emily Unglesbee