Few new varieties are being developed specifically for cover crops, as most are being selected.
For the last five years, the USDA SARE annual cover crop survey has reported increasing farmer interests in cover crops. Both the number of farmers planting cover crops and the cover crop acreage per farm are increasing.
The corresponding demand for cover crop seed is also on the rise, yet there are very few new seed options developed specifically for cover crop applications.
In the Midwest corn and soybean production region, seed companies spend millions of dollars to release new hybrids and varieties each year. Where are the new cover crop varieties? Who is researching new cover crop varieties?
La Crosse Seed, La Crosse, Wisc. is a regional wholesale distributor of forage, cover crop, turf and native seeds that works with domestic and multinational seed developers and producers to evaluate and introduce new cover crop varieties into the market.
Even with the increasing interest in cover crops, the new varieties being marketed by La Crosse Seed for cover crop planting were initially developed for other purposes and subsequently were found to have an application as a cover crop.
“The growth in cover crop seed demand has caught the attention of both U.S. and multinational small seed breeding companies,” says La Crosse Seed President Dan Foor. “DLF and PH Peterson, for example, have continued to showcase new products with cover crop applications. Others like Grassland Oregon and Blue Moon Farms here in the States have interesting programs for evaluating value-added traits in species.” Foor says.
Money and Time
“It all goes back to money,” says Nick Bowers, co-owner of KB Seed Solutions in Linn County, Oregon, located in the heart of the ‘Grass Seed Capital of the World’. “It takes money and time to develop any new variety. Farmers will pay for improved corn or soybean seed because it holds the promise of increased yield and more income per acre.”
The time required to develop and bring a new cover product is about 10 to 15 years. The time to evaluate and select an existing variety for a cover crop application is three to five years.
Some cover seeds – especially tillage radishes – are marketed as variety-not-stated (VNS) brands, an even less costly path to market.
The return from cover crops is less tangible – reduced erosion, improved soil health, environmental or herbicide and nutrition management benefits. For these applications, farmers tend to be more focused on keeping cost per acre as low as possible.
There is little financial incentive for a seed company to invest resources in research for cover crop plant breeding when their customers cannot readily realize the added value produced by a cover crop.
Nonetheless, Foor remains optimistic that new cover crop varieties are in the pipeline.
“Given the extremely high percentage of cereals that are used in cover crops, I would expect to see some neat things from small grain breeding companies in the very near future,” he says.
Even European farmers with a tradition of being more environmentally friendly are finding few new cover crop varieties.
“I don’t know anybody who is working specifically on cover crops,” says Seed World’s sister publication editor of European Seed Marcel Bruins. “I can imagine several seed companies which are breeding varieties which do well as cover crops, but no specific company [primarily focused on cover crop breeding] comes to mind.”
First the Goal, Then the Seed
“When first-time cover crop farmers ask me to recommend the best seed to plant, I tell them they are asking the wrong question,” Bowers says. “They should first tell me why they want to plant a cover crop, what is their goal? What return are they expecting?”
Bowers states there is no more of a best crop to plant than there is a best wrench in a mechanic’s tool box. Every tool is useful in the right situation. Every situation has the best tool for the job.
“When farmers’ justifications for planting a cover crop are nothing more than their neighbors have cover crops, they are setting themselves for disappointment,” Bowers says. “Even when the purpose seems similar, different environments can be best served by different covers.”
The best cover for weed suppression on a certified organic field, for example, may not be the best cover for a conventional field with different tillage practices and different forms of weed pressure.
For a plant breeder looking ahead 15 years to outline a cover crop breeding program, there is no crystal ball. A corn breeder is at somewhat of an advantage because per acre yield will always be a relevant indicator of a new hybrid’s potential success.
Cover crops have multiple success indicators, which makes setting a target for a breeding program more ambiguous.
“Fifteen year ago we stepped outside the box to envision the market for today’s cover crops,” says Risa DeMasi, Partner and Director of Marketing for Grassland Oregon. “We made some speculative decisions that are fortunately being proven correct. Now the challenge for us is to educate our distributors and their customers on how best to manage these new products to achieve grower’s goals.”
With projections that cover crop acres will reach 50 million in the near future, it is certainly possible that more breeders will be stepping outside the box to develop new cover crop varieties.