At least 8,000 years have passed since humans first started harvesting grasses. In that time, cereal grains have become quite different from their grassy ancestors. They still have enough similarities though, that farmers can incorporate grass seed into their cereal and oilseed operations fairly easily. For instance, there’s no need for specialized equipment. They still have enough differences though to present growers with a few challenges, including weeds, seed size and flowability.
While the grass seed industry on the prairies is small, it has carved out a fairly solid niche. Terry Kowalchuk, Saskatchewan Agriculture’s provincial forage crops specialist, estimates that 40,000 acres of grass were planted in Saskatchewan this year for seed, mostly for forage blends. There are about 300 growers primarily based in the Nipawin area of northeast Saskatchewan.
According to Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, forage seed is produced on over 100,000 acres in Manitoba, “which is approximately 30 per cent of the Canadian total for forage seed acres.” Those numbers — which include legumes — also include 50 per cent of the timothy seed and 90 per cent of the perennial ryegrass seed.
Forage, turf and reclamation markets
While forage markets dominate the Canadian scene, grass seed can also be grown for turf, the largest market, and for reclamation, the smallest. Though there is very little overlap between the grasses destined for each of those markets, the companies that deal with grass seed seem to juggle all of them.
In Alberta, Terry Andersen, of Anderseed Farms near Bon Accord, Alta., estimates that less than 2,000 acres are probably taken up with native grasses for reclamation. Forage is significantly more with possibly 10,000 acres in brome. The turf market is huge; Andersen estimates that there is probably 20,000 acres in pedigreed fescue — and equal amount of common.
According to Calvin Yoder, forage seed crops agrologist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Alberta generally has 40 per cent of Canada’s acres of forage seed production with about 70 per cent of those acres in grass seed. He says it is difficult to keep track of total acres because the majority of grass seed produced in Alberta is common. Creeping red fescue is the most widely produced grass — grown entirely in the Peace Region of Alberta and B.C. and mainly exported to the U.S. and Europe for turf seed. The second most widely grown grass seed is timothy followed by bromegrass, and wheatgrass.
Over ninety species
Making general statements about grasses is next to impossible. Norm Klemmer, with Ag-Vision Seeds, a forage and turf seed company that works with 270 or so growers in Carrot River, Saskatchewan, makes it clear, “When we say ‘grass,’ we’re referring to more than 90 species that are all as different from each other as wheat is from flax.” Kowalchuk agrees that giving overarching advice about grasses is difficult: “Some grasses can be quite technical with their own production manuals and specific growing requirements.”
Over the course of two decades, Andersen has grown about 25 different grasses on his farm, maintaining a balance of about 80 per cent native grasses for reclamation and 20 per cent forage grasses. While he changes it up a bit each year, he maintains a core group of seven to eight kinds. He’s actually stayed with one of the first grasses he ever started with — tufted hair grass.
Choices of grass species will depend on the availability of seed. Good quality seed for one of Ag-Vision’s most commonly grown grasses — crested wheat grass — has been hard to find. Klemmer emphasizes that farmers must start with seeds that meet the standards.
Soil conditions may also determine a grower’s choices; some grass species can withstand salinity, alkalinity, and acidity, so a grower might want to choose a grass that will do well on land where other crops don’t.
Growers will find information on all aspects of growing specific grass species through their provincial department of agriculture or through any of the grass seed companies. There are several regional companies as well as Prairie-wide companies, which include Pickseed, Northstar Seed and BrettYoung.
Moving into grass seed production may be beneficial for producers. It’s also crucial for the industry. Norm Klemmer points out, “Lots of our producers have grey hair and some have no hair at all.” He estimates that 30 per cent of Ag-Vision’s growers have retired in the last six year. “We’d like some younger guys. But they’ve got to be dedicated.” Because, Klemmer says of grass seed production, “It’s not for the feeble.”