Grass seed- Too high a price to pay.... or not.
By Dave Saltman
How many times have you been quoted a price for a bag of grass seed and wondered why on earth it has to cost so much? I decided to do some investigative journalism (for a change, some might say!) and find out about the inner workings of the seed industry, it provided a real insight into the production of amenity seed.
Jon and a colleague Jackie Cronin, were about to do a crop inspection in three fields of approximately 25 hectares in total of the acclaimed Aberimp rye grass cultivar. Jon explained why they were inspecting the crops. "Today, we are checking to make sure the crop is completely isolated so that there is no danger of foreign pollen coming in from outside the field. Once we are satisfied that the crop is isolated, we have to go through the fields and start counting for off-types, what I mean by that is any similar type rye grasses not showing the correct botanical characters of this variety.
The first job for Jon and I was to walk the perimeter of the field and see what was growing in the accompanying fields. "The seed will pollinate within itself over the next 2 weeks, which is why we are going around now to make sure everything is isolated. The regulations state that the field must be isolated by 50 meters from any other grass types that it may cross pollinate with. In the case of this field of AberImp, this means 50m distance between the crop and any other Perennial ryegrass of a similar ploidy that is in head."
"When we talk about ploidy we are referring to the number of complete chromosome sets. Almost all amenity, or dwarf leaved, perennial ryegrasses are DIPLOID. That is to say that they have 2 complete sets of chromosomes. In the agricultural market many of the ryegrasses are TETRAPLOID. This means that they have 4 sets of chromosomes. The tetraploid ryegrasses tend to be slightly larger plants with a higher sugar content and are primarily used in grazing. Interestingly enough a tetraploid and a diploid ryegrass will not cross pollinate in the wild hence we only look for ryegrasses of a similar ploidy. I.e. other diploids."
The farmer understands when you present him with the bit of paper at the end of the day. He knows he's got to cut it out because the crop is more valuable to him than some adjacent grazing land. We will also have to come back and check that it has been cut out.
The farmer decides how to look after the crop. We sell him the basic seed and it's his responsibility to get the crop in good order. We have a production team who come out and give advice on what to spray and the quality issues. But in the end it's his crop, he is growing it on contract for us and he gets paid at the end of the day for the seed that's produced."
Jon and I continued to walk around the perimeter of the field, checking the neighbouring fields. Apart from the one field used for animal grazing, the rest contained, cereal, maize, root vegetables, nothing that would cause a problem with the Aberimp crop. It was now time to do some random quadrat inspections, as part of the DEFRA requirements. I asked Jon, what this involved.
The fields used for grass production crops such as these, have to have been free from a similar species crop for at least four years. This is to ensure that none of the previous crops seed bank can come through from the soil and contaminate the present crop. To ensure this, the grower must declare his previous crop types on the CERT 3H form. As we can see here in 2002, this field had oats, in 2001 it had cress, in 2000 it was vetch and in 1999 borage.
On the DEFRA form any number of off types or scheduled species over an average of 1 per quadrat would reject the whole crop or, if we could identify an infested area of the field that was heaviest in contamination, we would instruct the farmer to mow it out and not include it in the harvest. We would then re-do the inspection.
I asked Jon about the larger volumes of seed production that British Seed Houses carry out. He said "In the UK we have something in the region of 150 - 200 hectare of Aberelf, and about the same of Aberimp. We also grow these grasses in Holland and, more recently, in the States. We get different yield results from different areas. In Denmark and the States the yields are higher because
I asked Jon if there was any benefit in feeding up the plants so they produce better quality seed. He said, "No, the seed quality cannot really be affected as long as the crop is healthy; no one has done any work to prove that the quality or yield can be affected. As you can see the seed goes on agricultural land, so the land tends to be very fertile anyway.
Having satisfied DEFRA's inspection standards what we look for now is for our own quality control standards. I will look through the crop to see what other species of grass are present. At this crop inspection stage there is no DEFRA requirement to note down other grass species unless they are extremely excessive, however we do prefer the seed we produce to be of a high, clean standard. I've already seen some daisies and one of two thistles however this isn't too much of a worry as these will clean out after harvest. I have seen one or two Black grass plants (Alopecurus myosuroides) and these could potentially be a problem. The seeds
At the end of the day a variety such as AberImp has taken around 20 years to get from the breeder to the market. Breeders at IGER in Aberystwyth originally discovered AberImp as part of the perennial ryegrass breeding programme. Initial crosses are carried out between plants with desirable traits such as high shoot density or wear tolerance or in AberImp's case, both. The initial cross is carried out isolated and one of the plants will be "demasculinised" by removing the anthers to prevent self pollination.
Once the variety has been privately trialled and the breeder and ourselves feel the variety is good enough, we have to enter it into DUS testing. This stands for Distinguishable, Uniform and Stable. Essentially DEFRA will carry out this testing for 2 years to ensure that the variety is: 1) Distinguishable from other ryegrass varieties on the market, 2) Uniform. I.e. the whole crop is the same without variation. 3) Stable. This is to ensure that the variety stays the same through different harvests, i.e. the resulting harvested seed produces seed itself which again is the same.
Only after the variety has passed this testing can breeders seed be grown to be pre-basic seed, then multiplied up to produce basic seed and then finally to a crop such as this to produce C1 seed for the end user."
I asked Jon about Poa annua seeds getting into the seed bags, he said, "The biggest problem that most Groundsmen and Green keepers face is from Poa annua, it is difficult to get rid of - it's a problem to clean out and it' a problem to the end user. If we had a lot of Poa annua mixed in to a particular field we would have to try to rectify it. The seed is very small and very light, it mixes in with the rest of the seed and therefore becomes very difficult to clean out. On the cleaning tables it is very difficult to separate. And, obviously, the more times we go through the cleaning process, the more good seed we lose. Part of the reason for doing these checks is to make sure that a field hasn't got a high percentage of Poa in it to start with.
This particular farmer has grown crops for us before, at this site and different farms he has. He has grown Amenity perennial rye grass for us before. I think it is the first time he has grown Aberimp, he has grown Aberelf before, and he's got some of that in a field up the road.
The field we were in was perennial rye so I asked Jon if the company were growing bents or fescues would it look much different?
"We haven't really got the climate for those grasses. We are one of the few companies that grow a few fescues in the UK. We grow some slender creeping red fescue and some chewing's fescue. The fescue tends to be a lot earlier, so we would have been doing this type of inspection about a month or so ago, with harvesting in the next couple of weeks."
If that's the case, I said, why are bents used on our golf greens when they aren't grown in the UK?
How did you bring Aberimp to the market originally?
We doubled up on the first year's production by producing a crop over here, having the seed cleaned and certified for pre basic and then flown over to New Zealand for planting. We then got another harvest within the same 12 month spell grown to basic seed standards. The benefit, of course, is being able to increase your seed quantity very rapidly; half the amount of time than you would need over here. It was a special one off to increase our basic seed because the qualities of Aberimp were so good that we wanted to get it into production as quickly as possible. We don't do it on a regular basis because of the expense.
Basic seed is the seed we use to produce production fields such as this one. Basic seed is produced under very strict conditions and is only inspected and passed by DEFRA inspectors in order to meet the very high standards required. The seed from this crop will be C1 seed (First generation certified) and will go directly to the end user. Basic seed will be sown at around 10kg per hectare from a precision drill in order to produce a crop like this. I know this is a small quantity but you have to remember that basic seed costs around 10 to 13 times more to produce than certified seed!"
How much of your harvested seed is retained for planting next years' crop?
There are specific fields of basic seed crops that have a minimum100 metres isolation area around them producing next year's basic seed. The cost of producing basic seed is approximately 10/13 times more expensive than producing certified seed. That's why it is possible to fly it to the other side of the world to bulk up your crop yield. To give you some idea, we use around 10000 to 15000kg of basic seed per annum and in the UK alone we grow nearly 7500 hectares of grass crops. "
One of the problems that I'd found in my experience was that I've seen brand new, constructed and seeded pitches with good sterilised root zones and found poa annua growing sporadically across the area within a short time. Many people seem convinced that the poa seed is imported with the rye grasses in the bags so I put this to Jon. "You should always ask your seed company for details of the seed content. Ask what it contains, never mind what it says on the label. Ask to see the certificate. The company should produce the certificate with details of purity, the amount of inert matter, which is usually between 0.5 and 1.5%, the percentage germination and the percentage of other crop species found, if any.
The important part to look at is the size of the search used. There will be a 60 gram in perennial ryegrasses used for scheduled species however something like Poa annua isn't a scheduled species so often the search size is only 3 or 5 grams."
Jon had already mentioned that BSH took 60gm samples from each lot, so I asked him to explain further. "It is a measure used for scheduled species. These are: Agropyron repens, Alopecurus myosuroides, Avena sp, Cuscata sp, Melilotus sp and Rumex sp.
The certification laws are still governed around agricultural seed grasses. They haven't moved on to keep up with the amenity market demand. The same regulations apply to the domestic market as they do to the professional, both markets fall under the same certification laws. The requirements for sample sizes is actually 60 gms for the scheduled species but only 5 grams for other crop species in a ryegrass We follow the most stringent testing that we can to make sure that the seed is as clean as possible before it goes for sale by looking for all species of seed in a 60g sample for ryegrass, 30g sample for fescues and 5g for Poa's and bents.
Some companies have far less controlled testing, and it wouldn't be fair to comment on what you might find in a cheaper bag of seed. Ultimately the difference in bag prices is based on the quality controls throughout the process from growing the seed, to harvesting, to cleaning, sorting and bagging. That's what the end user will pay a premium for, knowing that the seed delivered is as it says on the label and certificates provided.
Varieties such as Aberimp and Aberelf are used primarily for the professional market because they are top class cultivars and have been expensive to bring to production. For the domestic market, we use different varieties like Talgo. Ideally what we want for the domestic market are high yielding varieties which do not cost too much to produce.
No company grows all their own grass seed in the UK. As a company we are about 85% self sufficient on all the seed we produce in the UK. A lot of this is in the agricultural; market which relies almost entirely on Perennial ryegrasses.
Some species however we don't grow as seed crops in the UK, species such as the Poa's and Agrostis".
How long will seed keep on the shelf? I asked. "It is very unusual for us to carry seed over 12 months. We are in a lucky position because we plan well in advance. Some of the bents can stay in for a bit longer, but you have to bear in mind that by the time they have been certified and packed in the States and on the train from Oregon to New York and shipped over here, they could already be as much as three months old before they get here. During transportation, we tend to keep the seed in air-tight sealed buckets, so the germination rate doesn't detiorate. Legally, the requirement is that all seed must conform to the Seeds Regulations at time of sale, and as part of our quality control, we retest all our seed stocks every 6 months for germination.
The shelf life of seed depends very much on how you keep them. Over at the seed bank at IGER, there is a humidity controlled store. We took some samples of a meadow fescue that had been collected in the 1960's. There was a15 kilos batch of seed and it grew at 72% germination. In a store like ours at Lincoln, we don't quite get the same lifetime!! If the seed gets damp and cold, the germination is bound to be affected much quicker. This is why it is so important to keep a well maintained store. Typically seed would probably last in our store up to two years depending on the species. When looking at a germination certificate it is important therefore to look at the date the test was carried out."I asked Jon finally about the crop harvesting. "This field will be harvested early in August. The farmer will direct-combine the field, feeding the seed-bearing tillers onto the "table" by gentle use of the reels, and bale the straw for sale as animal feed. The field could then be used for sheep-grazing. At the moment the grass is standing about 18 inches high, but after pollination the crop will lay nearly flat on the ground, giving protection from the wind, which could cause seed to shatter from the ear."
I hope to return up to Lincoln in July/August to take a look at the screening processes that take place after the harvesting and report on this. The interesting points to remember when you buy your seed is to remember the costs involved in the whole process of bringing seed to market. It starts with the science of producing new top quality seed varieties, to the growth of the basic seed crop to the full production of a certified crop, to the harvesting, cleaning and bagging of what you and I see as the end result. There are of course other costs involved, but the difference in price between one bag of seed and the next will generally depend solely on quality and purity.