A PROTRACTED 2009 cropping season, coupled with an extended harvest, created some anxiety in the corn and soybean seed production sector. And although companies are confident supplies will be adequate to meet producer demand, there could be spot shortages of popular seed hybrids and varieties.

“We were definitely concerned in October when the weather kept us from harvesting seed beans,” says Tim Berntson, of Frontier Ag in Buffalo, ND. “It was a difficult harvest, but we will have seed to meet our customers' needs.”

Seed corn production also saw its share of difficult conditions. “We had some good early harvest activity of seed corn, but the moisture levels were not ideal,” says Kim Mayne, corn seed production manager for Dairyland Seed. “We were able to get our seed harvest done before the first frost. And our yields actually came in better than we expected.”

Harvesting high-moisture seed corn (38 to 40%) doesn't affect overall quality if handled correctly. However, it does create bottlenecks because the seed takes longer to dry properly. “We optimally like to have our seed corn harvested at 28 to 32% moisture so it moves through the drying facilities at a faster pace,” Mayne says. “Higher moisture corn simply takes additional time.” And that can delay harvest if there's no dryer space at the conditioning facility. It's a delicate balancing act to harvest the seed and get it in the dryers before the first freeze.

“A freeze can negatively impact the germination depending on seed moisture, temperature and duration of freeze,” Mayne says. “We can treat corn better in a dryer than Mother Nature can in the field. It just takes longer to dry if our corn is at higher-than-optimum harvest moistures.”

Stockpiled seed

Seed companies have increased their stockpiles of corn seed, spurred by better-than-average growing conditions the past few years. Increased competition and newer product offerings also are pushing companies to have reserve supplies of seed corn in stock.

“We have invested in large safety stocks so we can buffer against swings in production or demand to ensure our customers have the high-quality seed they need,” says Mike Gumina, vice president of production and business improvement at Pioneer Hi-Bred. “It is a commitment we made three years ago to significantly increase our seed production.”

And that buffer has been important this year. “Harvest of seed stocks has been particularly difficult in the edges of the Corn Belt,” Gumina says.

In general, seed companies have been running high inventories, and will be able to carry forward stored seed if shortages occur due to this year's seed harvest. “We came into the year with a good carry-in amount and a good supply of popular products, so it makes for a nice buffer to start the 2010 season,” Gumina says. “We are still looking at quality of this year's seed products and are seeing a normal level of quality defects. But we are confident that we will have adequate supplies. In fact, our seed shipments are ahead of last year, reflecting demand for our products.”

Soybean seed suffered

The delayed harvest was especially troubling for soybean seed production. “There were a lot of high-moisture soybeans going into the bin,” says Jay Barlow, soybean seed production manager for Dairyland Seed. Unlike corn, soybean seed germination can be significantly affected if too much heat is applied in the drying process. “Some early soybeans that came in were not good and were rejected,” Barlow says. “We have a lot of soybean seed to sort through.”

Soybeans that sit in the field due to harvest delays can be susceptible to damage. “Seed in the field sucks in moisture, and each time it does it stretches the seed coat and can make it more susceptible to mechanical damage,” Barlow says. “And we're also seeing soybean seed that never matured.”

It takes a steady hand to ensure that soybean seed is properly conditioned, so Barlow says it comes down to trusting your seed supplier. “There is a good supply of soybean seed, but we're sorting through and rejecting more seed than normal,” he says.

Suppliers are rejecting seed that suffered frost damage or failed germination tests, but industry sources expect there will be enough seed available to meet demand. However, there may be localized shortages, especially of in-demand hybrids or varieties, due in part to poor growing or harvest conditions. “If producers wait to lock in supplies, they may not leave with what they want,” Berntson says. “My advice is to lock in your needs early.”

Overall, some pockets may see tighter supplies of the more popular hybrids and varieties, “but there are always shortages of highest-demand products,” Gumina says. “Expect shortages of the newest products, but those shortages won't be across the board. In general, supplies are good, so there is no reason to do anything radical.”