Oregon is the world’s major producer of cool-season forage and turf grass seed and a widely recognized center of expertise in seed production. Most of the acreage is located in the Willamette Valley, the “grass seed capital of the world.” Farm gate value of Oregon’s 2003 production was over $275 million. Collectively, Oregon’s Willamette Valley produces almost two-thirds of the total production of cool-season grasses in the United States (U.S.).
Grass seed is produced on nearly 800 family farms, averaging 700 acres, with more than 60% of the total labor requirements provided by family members. Seed production of one or more grass species are the major enterprises, with growers using machine technology especially adapted to small seeds. Mild and moist winters with dry summers favoring seed development and harvest make the Valley an ideal place to produce high quality seed. Over 370 seed conditioning plants located in the Willamette Valley prepare the seed for market once the harvest operation is complete.
Prior to World War II, farms in the Willamette Valley were more diversified and smaller than farms today. Grass seed was introduced as early as the 1920s as an alternative crop for the south valley. Ryegrass was especially well adapted to the wet soils and soon became an important crop. Grass seed also established itself as an excellent alternative crop for the highly erodible foothill soils found on the valley’s eastern flank. Since 1940, the industry has made steady growth, with many national and international seed companies located in the Willamette Valley.
The Willamette Valley’s mild, wet winters and dry summers have provided an ideal environment for the grass seed industry to expand. Grass seed growers in Linn, Benton, and Lane counties, in the southern Willamette Valley, tend to specialize in grass seed crops because of the extensive area of poorly-drained soils in the region. Most other crops will not survive the winter flooding on these soils. Grass seed crops are grown on more than half of the total harvested cropland in the southern Willamette Valley and more than one third of all cropland in Willamette Valley counties. In 2003, Oregon growers produced over 655 million pounds of cool-season grass seed crops (Table 1.)
Table 1. Oregon Grass Seed Crop Production Estimates, 2003¹.
|(acres)||(lb)||(000 lb)||($ / lb)||(000 $)|
¹ Data from the Extension Economic Information Office, Oregon State University.
Establishment of the Plant Variety Protection Act in 1970 has brought more recent growth to the industry. The PVP Act provided private plant breeders a proprietary protection program granting exclusive right to produce and market their seed. This has encouraged dramatic progress in the genetic improvement of a number of cool-season grasses, particularly those cultivars used for turf. As a result, the demand for turf-type proprietary varieties has increased markedly during the past 20 years.
The combined higher market price and higher yields of some new varieties have contributed to an expanded total acreage of grass seed crops. Today, seed crops of over 950 varieties from eight grass species are grown on over 485,000 acres statewide.
Oregon growers produce essentially all of the USA production of annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum Lam.), perennial ryegrass (L. perenne L.), bentgrass (Agrostis spp.), and fine fescue (Festuca spp.). Smaller amounts, but significant portions of the USA production of Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis L.), orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata L.), and tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea Schreb.) are also grown in Oregon.
Ryegrass. Oregon’s Willamette Valley produces nearly all the ryegrass seed grown in the United States. In fact, nearly one half of the nation’s ryegrass seed is grown in Linn County.
Annual ryegrass seed, over 60% of all ryegrass seed production, is used to a great extent in the South for winter overseeding of lawns, pastures, and rice and cotton fields. Recently, its use has increased in the mid-west for cover cropping systems to prevent soil erosion.
Perennial ryegrass acreage has increased greatly in the past 14 years, from 60,000 acres in 1985 to over 167,000 acres in 2003. The reasons are proprietary development and improved turf-type varieties. The seed is commonly used in central and eastern states of the U.S. for turf and pasture seeding. Overseeding golf courses established with warm-season grass species is also a common use for turf-type varieties in the southern U.S.
Bentgrass. Oregon produces nearly all the bentgrass seed grown in the United States. Predominantly a Willamette Valley crop, bentgrass seed is exported in large quantities to Europe and also to the central and northern states for use in turf mixtures. This grass is widely used on golf courses throughout the world.
Chewings fescue. Nearly all of the Nation’s Chewings fescue seed is grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Like bentgrass, it is exported to Europe and used there as well as in the U.S. in turf mixtures.
Red fescue. Oregon has been producing almost all the red fescue seed grown in the U.S. Used much like bentgrass and Chewings fescue, red fescue is exported in somewhat smaller quantities.
Tall fescue. Acreage has increased greatly in recent years, from 10,000 acres in 1979 to over 140,000 acres in 2003, because of the increased demand for improved turf-type proprietary varieties. In addition, it remains a popular pasture grass throughout the “transition zone” between northern cool-season grass species and warm-season southern species.
Kentucky bluegrass. Over 80% of the Nation’s bluegrass seed is produced in the Pacific Northwest. It is widely used as a turfgrass in the cooler climates in cities and rural communities. Bluegrass is also exported, though in smaller quantities than bentgrass and Chewings fescue.
Orchardgrass. This grass is used in the northern states for pastures and grass hay. Oregon is the nation’s leading producer of orchardgrass seed.
As indicated earlier, the Willamette Valley is by far the most important area of grass seed production in the state. However, there are three major grass seed producing regions on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. The Lower Columbia Basin has in recent years seen a large increase in grass seed (and other high-value crop) due to the rapid expansion of center pivot irrigation systems. The LaGrande area in the northeast corner of the state produces approximately 10,000 acres of bluegrass and fine fescues. A slightly smaller sized production area is located in central Oregon around the town of Madras. In these areas winters are colder and precipitation rates are low, and most soils require that seed be produced under irrigation (see below).
Oregon’s grass seed production regions
Region Acres Characteristics Northwest
450,000 - 40-50 in. precipitation.
- Elevation – 50-900 ft
(Grande Ronde Valley)
10,000 -.18-20 in precipitation
- Elevation 2,800-2,900 ft.
Lower Umatilla Basin
12,000 - 9-10 in. precipitation
- Elevation 600 ft
- All irrigated
8,500 - 10-12 in. precipitation.
- Elevation – 2,200-2,400 ft.
- All irrigated
In many ways, managing grass for seed production is radically different than growing turf, lawn, pasture, or hay. Seed crop establishment requires special attention to detail. Preparation is essential to provide an environment favorable for immediate seed germination and growth. Carefully following certain principles determines success or failure in establishment of small-seeded grasses. These include:
Proper field selection and establishment will, in many cases, determine the success of a stand and its productive life. Seed fields should be free of noxious weeds and have an adapted soil type with medium fertility. In addition, soil and climatic conditions are important factors in determining planting time. Seed crops must be planted in time to become established before the onset of severe cold, or hot and dry weather conditions. In most cases, planting for seed production is in the same season used for forage production. Some perennial species require a cold period for floral induction before flowering and seed set. These crops must be planted in the spring or late summer to allow adequate plant and tiller development before the onset of the cold season. The crop is seeded in rows and specialized techniques are employed. One of these is carbon band seeding, in which a slurry of activated charcoal is sprayed over the drill row during seeding. Next, the herbicide diuron is sprayed over the field to control weeds prior to their germination. The charcoal over the drill row adsorbs the herbicide and allows the crop to emerge unharmed.
Once established, additional herbicides are used during the winter months to control both volunteer crop seedlings and weeds. These are soil residual herbicides such as metribuzin, ethofumesate, and diuron. Broadleaf herbicides such as 2,4-D are used in early spring.
Rusts and other diseases are serious problems in some grass seed species and fungicides such as chlorothalonil, propiconazol, pyraclostrobin and azoxystrobin are used to help control them. Many of the diseases that plague grass seed crops have their biggest impact on seed yield, and are not a problem in turf or hay crops.
Nitrogen is the major fertilizer used in grass seed production and most is applied in March and April at rates between 90 to 150 lb/a of actual nitrogen. In general, higher rates of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are used in seed production than in grass hay or pasture production in the Willamette Valley.
Since grass seed is grown extensively on wet soils, specialized equipment called swampbuggies have been developed to apply fertilizers and agri-chemicals during the winter and spring months when normal tractors and implements would sink in the mud. The swampbuggy as most commonly seen has three large tires in a tricycle arrangement for added floatation.
Harvest of grass seed crops begins in late June or early July with swathing (cutting) and windrowing the crop. This is accomplished with self-propelled windrowers, and is done while the seed is still somewhat green to prevent shattering. After the seed has dried in the windrow, the crop is combined and taken to a seed cleaning warehouse. It is critical to cut and combine in a timely and efficient manner to avoid rain damage, and fairly large and powerful equipment is used.
Seed is cleaned and bagged, and then sampled for germination and purity. Most of the seed today is marketed by commercial seed companies, and many contract with growers to raise their proprietary varieties.
Oregon State University plays an important role in marketing through the Seed Certification Service. The certification program helps assure buyers that Oregon seed is quality seed. To meet certification standards, a grower’s field must pass a seedling inspection and a crop inspection prior to harvest, and cleaned seed must meet germination and purity requirements.
The seed multiplication process under a certification program involves the supervision of three or four generations of seed increased from the plant breeder to the commercial grower. Under the U.S. system of certification, four classes of seed increase are designated, with the registered class optional. Breeder seed is produced by the originator and provides the stock for the first increase. Production from this planting is designated foundation seed. Fields established with foundation seed produce registered (for certain specific varieties) or certified seed. The certified class is the final generation in the program and is not intended for further increase, but is for commercial use such as pasture or turf. In 2003, over 40% of Oregon’s grass seed production was certified.
Cultivars must generally be approved by an accredited seed certifying agency to be eligible for certification. Approval is based on research data and performance history of the cultivar under consideration. The grower must plant eligible cultivars of the proper class or generation. Documentation of the seed source (such as certification tag, sales record, etc.) must be furnished when applying for certification. All fields used for the production of certified seed must have the minimum specified isolation distances from fields of any other cultivar of the same species or closely related species. Requirements may be different for each species and rules can be obtained from the appropriate state certifying agency.
Certification criteria. Field inspections are commonly made to insure that genetic purity is maintained. These are timed so that varietal off-types and other crop and weed contamination can be easily detected. In certified grass seed production, a seedling inspection may be required to check for the presence of volunteer crop plants. In Oregon the crop must be planted in rows to more easily check for volunteers. In addition, grass plants are usually inspected again during pollination when off-types and weeds can easily be detected.
Shortly after the new crop has emerged, the field is inspected, or given the “seedling” inspection. The inspector verifies the information on the application and looks for evidence of volunteer plants, weeds or other problems that could cause difficulties in meeting the requirements of genetic purity in passing later inspections or tests. Before each harvest, the crop is again inspected, usually when the plants are in the final stages of seed formation. Again, evidence of contaminating cultivars or weeds are noted to determine if the crop meets the standards set by the certifying agency. Isolation distances from other varieties of the same species are checked.
After both the seedling and the pre-harvest crop inspection, the grower is permitted time to correct any deficiencies noted which would preclude certification. The grower can then apply for a “re-inspection” of the field, which would be conducted to ensure that the problem has been corrected.
Certain harvesting practices must be followed to meet certification standards. If there are strips along the edges of a field that could be contaminated genetically by nearby fields, these must be harvested separately and seed lot records must be maintained for each lot. These isolation strips can only be sold as uncertified seed. Field equipment must be cleaned when fields of different cultivars are harvested. Harvested seed must be stored in areas or containers such that their origins and identity can be maintained.
A final requirement of seed certification is seed inspection by an accredited seed testing laboratory. Here, a sample from each harvested seed lot is examined for viability by a germination test and for mechanical purity by visual inspection. Other tests such as seedling root fluorescence may be used to distinguish off-types and species. Presence of noxious weeds and other contaminants are recorded on seed test or analysis tags.
Open-field burning was developed in the mid-1940s as a solution to disease problems (ergot, blind seed, and seed gall nematode), and for over 50 years was use to keep incidence of disease at low levels. Field burning was also the solution to ridding fields of straw following seed harvest. However, during the 1970s and 1980s this practice became increasingly controversial. Public concern over air pollution from smoke during the field burning season in the Willamette Valley ultimately resulted in legislative restrictions on field burning. Today only about 10 percent of the acres grown are burned.
As these adjustments were being made a significant export market for Oregon grass seed straw began to develop in the Pacific Rim countries. In 2003, over one billion pounds (540,000 tons) of straw were exported to Japan, Korea and Taiwan for dairy and beef cattle feed. These exports sales have an estimated value of $25 million.
Today, forage producers, home owners, and other consumers of seed can choose from numerous cultivars specifically adapted to their farm and livestock production system, or amenity grass needs. Most private breeding programs work with public programs and new cultivars are usually from these joint efforts. Public breeding programs can concentrate on solving long-term problems since private programs need to breed for more immediate goals. An increased number of large and small seed companies in both the areas of production and use, all wanting their own cultivars, has lead to a proliferation of new ones. As market forces in the U.S. determine whether a new cultivar is needed and will be produced, it is not uncommon for cultivars to be developed for regional markets.
An excellent distribution system is responsible for providing the needed quantity and quality of seed required by consumers. More than 20 seed production and wholesale companies are members of the Oregon Seed Trade Association. The U.S. marketing system includes brokers and wholesalers with contacts in many parts of the country. In some cases, one organization is involved in breeding of a new cultivar, controlling the production, and managing the marketing to the consumer. Grass seed production and marketing is international. Many European companies work with or own American companies in Oregon to help with seed production of their turf and forage cultivars. Cultivars developed in the U.S. are often included in the European national list trials to enable marketing in Europe. Canada, Mexico and the Pacific Rim countries are important export markets for many Oregon seed companies.
Growers often sell some of their uncertified production in advance through seed companies or seed brokers; most of the seed is eventually sold through these channels, rather than directly by farmers themselves. Most proprietary cultivars are contract-produced and sold through the contracting company. Such contracts offer growers the advantage that a secure market exists for their production and that a price has been negotiated prior to planting. This is especially valuable during periods of over production and soft demand. In contrast to proprietary grass cultivars grown in Oregon, very little of the annual ryegrass seed crop is grown under contract with a seed company, although most is sold to seed companies for marketing.
The specialist forage and turfgrass seed producer is strongly positioned in Oregon, and recognized by authorities around the world as producing the best grass seed available. Supported by government agencies such as the Oregon State University research and extension scientists, USDA specialist, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon’s seed industry can be expected to continue to deliver high quality seed. Each agency, in addition to the private seed companies themselves, work to meet phytosanitary regulations and inspection, and provide research to maintain weed and disease control in all seed crops.
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