MONCTON, N.B. — Canada is a world leader in forage seed production, growing everything from turf grasses to alfalfa.
“We are doing the widest array of species in the world,” said Julie Robinson, an agrologist with Forage Friendly Enterprises, which contracts services to the Peace Region Forage Seed Association.
Forage seed is grown throughout the world. The United States, New Zealand and Canada are the top three players. However, many countries restrict themselves to a few varieties, she told the recent annual meeting of the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association meeting in Moncton.
The Peace region of Alberta and British Columbia accounts for a large share of Canada’s forage seed production and exports.
Canada exported about 110 million pounds of seed in the 2018-19 growing season. In particular, alfalfa has increased in the last 10 years from 23 million lb. to 33 million lb. while creeping red fescue production has dropped.
Most of the turf grass and alfalfa seed ends up in the U.S. while China buys mostly alfalfa. The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany predominantly seek perennial ryegrass and alfalfa.
“We are exporting into areas that are growing a lot of their own seed as well,” Robinson said.
In Canada, most production happens in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta but public forage seeding breeding is across the country.
Commercial seed production takes about 600,000 acres. Much of it happens in marginal areas and has proved to be a remedy for low soil pH, poorly drained soils and rebuilding the land.
“After five years of growing red clover, you could actually grow some cereal and annual crops. It has been a key part of soil health for northern B.C. and Alberta,” Robinson said.
Cooler temperatures work well for seed setting and the Peace gets record yields compared to the rest of the world.
Crops like timothy, brome grasses, fescues, alfalfa and clovers are all part of the mix.
There are four categories of crop production.
- Turf grass: about 40 to 50 percent of Canadian seed is going out as turf grass seed worth $50 million in the 2018-19 growing season. Canadian fine fescues, creeping red fescue and Kentucky bluegrass are popping up in lawns and recreational areas like golf courses and football fields. Sales can vary by economic conditions.
- Forage grass: about 12 to 13 percent of forage grass is headed for export. Timothy, bromes, orchard grass and fescues are worth $15 million in exports.
- Forage legumes: these represent 38 to 42 percent of the forage seed exports and are worth $94 million. Alfalfa is the primary crop, often ending up in dairy markets around the world and feed supplement sector.
- Native forage seed is a niche market, worth less than $2 million. A lot of native seeds are used in Canada and are often used to rejuvenate oil and gas well sites.
Getting accurate revenue numbers can be challenging because of the way producers market, said Robinson.
“This is not a stable industry and one of the things that is really tricky for us to talk about is we often stockpile our forage seed and we will market when the prices are high,” she said.
Farmers may store seed for three to five years until more favourable markets return. This pattern makes it difficult to develop consistent patterns of growth, acres and yield.
A bigger issue for producers is the shrinking number of processors in the last 10 years. These companies buy, clean and repackage seed for sale. The Peace had 15 companies and now has about a third of the capacity.
“As you go across Canada, the number of processing facilities drops off as the amount of acres in production drops off,” she said.
“There are very few places to get your forage seed cleaned in Canada compared to 10 years ago,” she said.
Genetic modification is growing but many customers will not accept GM products in the material even if they have used it in their own countries.
Products have been returned in the past so clear information is needed to tell growers what traits are not wanted.
There are other ongoing issues.
The value of certified seed is well understood among forage producers but less than 50 percent of the forage seed produced in Canada has been certified so there is a lot of common seed being produced.
Sometimes seed growers and farmers are at cross purposes.
The seed industry is focused on volume of seed production but that may not correlate with biomass production for farmers.
Longevity of a stand is a big factor for forage growers but less so for the seed producer.
New varieties have been developed but when they go to the private sector for multiplication they may not get used. If they chose not to multiply the genetics may be lost, said Robinson.
The Canadian Forage Seed Association is holding an international conference Feb. 25-26, 2020 in Edmonton.