High competing commodity prices, uncooperative spring weather, and competition for irrigated land meant fewer acres were devoted to alfalfa seed production this year in the U.S. and Canada. In spite of the challenges, if harvest conditions cooperate, alfalfa seed supplies should be adequate to meet demand for the next production year, according to alfalfa industry experts. Seed suppliers are advising alfalfa growers to expect higher prices and limited supplies of some nondormant varieties.

Fewer acres

“Because of competition for acres from other crops, the price of seed is going to go up,” says Joe Waldo, NK Brand Seed. “In many cases, we compete with crops like wheat for the seed-growing acres.”

Alfalfa seed production is a challenging business. Specialized growers have to understand the intricacies of pollination, often manage their own bees to assist with pollination, and struggle with weather conditions.

Alfalfa seed producers generally have one or more other cropping options too. Many growers use wheat after alfalfa as part of their rotation. When commodity prices spiked, some of the country's best alfalfa seed growers took advantage of the opportunity to produce a little more wheat and a little less alfalfa seed.

“For many growers, $10 wheat is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because the input costs are low,” says Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics International. “Crops that are competing with wheat for those acres need a competitive net return. I would say the total number of alfalfa seed production acres is probably a little lower this year because there have been some extremely attractive options for alfalfa growers in terms of other crops.”

Paul Frey, president and CEO of Cal/West Seeds, has a similar perspective. “In order for us to secure the acres to grow the seed, we have to raise what we pay to the seed growers very substantially,” he states. “In addition to high commodity prices, water is an issue in the West, where much of the alfalfa seed is grown. Irrigated land is at a premium. Everyone who wants to grow crops under irrigated conditions is competing with everyone else who needs the same thing.”

Dennis Gehler, Croplan Genetics, says higher production costs for alfalfa seed growers are going to be passed along to seed buyers. “Seed growers are farmers too, so their input costs and fuel costs have gone up,” he explains.

A late spring over much of the northern U.S. added to the seed production challenges this year. “Early reports from the Pacific Northwest, where a lot of the seed production occurs, indicate we were probably a couple of weeks behind,” McCaslin says. Early on, growers feared the seed crop was going to be below average, on a per-acre basis, because of the late spring. “Now I think we are little more optimistic that we are going to come in at least with an average crop,” McCaslin says. “Unfortunately when acres are down a little bit, you would like an above-average crop in order to compensate.”

Seed supply

Mike Velde, alfalfa breeder, Dairyland Seed, expects adequate seed supplies for most dormant varieties but sees tight supplies for fall dormancy ratings from 7 to 9. He predicts there is going to be very little alfalfa seed grown in the Great Plains states of Kansas or Nebraska this year. “If there is any crop grown in this part of the country, it will be economy alfalfas grown in the Dakotas, but we don't anticipate any significant supply of cheap alfalfa seed coming out of that area,” he says. “In addition, Canadian [alfalfa seed] acres are down about 15 to 20% due to high commodity prices.” A wet spring in Manitoba made bee pollination difficult at key times. Saskatchewan has been cool and dry, leading to late crop maturity. Velde says Alberta is expected to produce an average alfalfa seed crop.

Cal/West's Frey sees tight supplies in California for alfalfa in the dormancy 8 to 10 category. “As far as the winter hardy lines, from our perspective we think there is an adequate supply of seed,” he states. “The nondormant side is another story and I think there is a shortage of all types of nondormant seed — proprietary, common and public. This is due to the competitive pressures we face when we try to contract for seed production.”

Frey says fewer growers in the western U.S. can grow nondormant alfalfa seed because of problems obtaining adequate irrigation water or because growers have opportunities to produce other high-value crops that take less water while offering lower risk and good market potential. “There just haven't been as many acres of production of nondormant alfalfa seed,” Frey says. “U.S. companies have planted additional acres overseas in countries like Australia, but there still aren't enough acres to meet the demand.”

Global shortage

Demand for nondormant alfalfa varieties extends beyond the U.S., contributing to a worldwide shortage. “There are pretty big export markets for nondormant seed in Mexico, Argentina and Saudi Arabia, and they all compete with each other in terms of supply,” McCaslin says. “That global shortage of nondormant seed has made supplies of nondormant varieties even tighter in the southwestern U.S. for the last couple of years, and that is probably going to continue this year. But I don't think anybody is talking about a supply disaster. Supplies will just be a bit tight for some specific varieties.”

Gehler recommends growers place their alfalfa seed orders when they place corn and soybean orders. “Don't wait, especially if you are looking for a particular variety,” he says. “Placing orders early allows seed companies to have product in the right place at the right time to meet grower needs.”

Dairyland's Velde advises growers to buy the best varieties they can afford, making sure to work with reputable companies. “Book in the fall to make sure you have the best selection,” he states. “Prices are volatile, so booking early also helps ensure price. If you are going to wait until the day before you plant, your ability to get the seed you want may be curtailed because inventories may be gone.”