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Nels Smelland, Nipawin Saskatchewan
Director, SFSDC and long-time grass seed grower

Nels Smelland has been farming in the Nipawin, SK area most of his life and started growing grass seed in 1985. Nels grew both Intermediate and Crested Wheatgrass for the first 25 years, and then took on production of Slender Wheatgrass for the past 5 years.

Nels-Smelland

Grass seed production can really provide a great return when things go right, but can ruin you when it goes bad on too many acres. For that reason, Nels has never put in more than 10 per cent of his total crop production into forage grasses. His advice to new growers is to start small on a good field and take your time. Patience is the key to grass seed production.

Nels first got into grass seed because he wanted to diversify his crop production. The mid-80’s to mid-90’s saw tremendous growth of special crop acres in western Canada and because Nels had some white clay soils, he needed a crop that would work in those conditions. He was interested in building his clay soils and crested wheatgrass roots are deep and break up the clay to a significant depth. “On my farm I need the grasses to fracture my clay soils. I have grown grass seed on clay, brown and black soils with good luck. However, on sandy soils you can have problems in dry conditions.”

We have all heard stories of big money in grass seed production, but Nels started with small acres. At first he used a quad-mounted sprayer for treating weed patches, and even had to use a weed eater on very bad weed patches at the start.

Nels produces grass seed for the positive economic returns. For example, when he planted Slender Wheatgrass for the first time he harvested 750 pounds per acre at $1.50 per pound. But his experience shows that he has lucked out with an excellent return about once in every 7 or 8 years. It seems that grass seed will often provide high returns when the major crop prices are low.

He also includes grasses for the benefits of crop rotation. On his farm, whenever he takes a grass crop out of production, it is a perfect time to grow a crop of oats with no wild oats. However, Nels advises, “Don’t push your crop rotation with grass seed crops. I have never had good yields in years 4, 5 or 6. Grass seed can dry out the soil and it is best to move on after year 3.”

Nels has always planted and strived to produce pedigreed seed because the end result will return more dollars per pound. “You don’t always know how things will turn out, so if things go wrong you will end up in the common market.” Buying pedigreed seed is not much more expensive than common seed, but Nels advises that “You have to spend money to make money and the money you spend on pedigreed seed will be returned very fast when you sell it. Purchase your pedigreed seed from a viable contractor. You need the purest seed you can get or you will spend a lot of time out in the field roguing. Pedigreed seed really helps because the tolerance to weeds in the seed is much lower.”

Field selection is extremely important. Take note of the weeds that have been in the field in previous years. “Perennial weeds, wild oats, quackgrass... primary noxious weeds. They could be separable at the plant, but they could cause a nasty note on your field inspection report that might lead to problems, especially if the seed is going across the border.” So select a field that is as clean as possible. Certain crops cannot be grown in close proximity to other crops and require isolation to prevent cross pollination. Nels advises, “Start to prepare the field years before you rotate into grasses. You need to know your field history long before you grow these crops. In my experience, the fields where I was not trying to save money by reducing inputs turned out to be my best fields.”

Weed control has improved over the years. “There are more chemicals available than when I started, but there are still so few that have labels for forage crops. Talk to other growers, talk to your contractors and your agronomist for hints on weed control. We need to do research on herbicides for these crops, as well as research on cover crops and fertility.”

When planting grass seed crops, Nels relates that he has not had good luck using companion crops. “We need more research on alternate row planting methods and the use of companion crops. Until we get more research results, summerfallow is needed in my area to get good establishment. Fallow is not needed coming out of these crops.”

Nels feels that the old regular press drill was a great way to plant grass seed crops because they were so accurate with seeding depth and seeding rate. However, he now uses an air delivery drill. “I would not go back to the old press drill but the key to seeding is in the packing. I often pack the crop twice. Put it in as shallow as you can and wait for a rain. You need patience with the new drills. The crop will eventually fill in when it rains. It may start out patchy, but I get 90 per cent of a field after it fills in.”

Planting grasses on Nels’ farm often occurs in August. “In the wet years, we got a rain shortly after seeding and it was fine. I have never had problems with winter kill. We are told to plant earlier than I do to provide more time for the crop to establish.”

Nels uses no nitrogen fertilizer with the seed. He uses about ½ the rate of phosphate with the seed compared to his wheat crop. He feels there is no problem applying more phosphate, but it needs to be with the seed. Established crops need nitrogen fertilizer in the fall. “Later in the fall is better even if there is 2 inches of snow on the ground.” Nels advises that fertilizing in the fall is always better than the spring. “I use about 60 to 90 pounds of nitrogen per acre after the first year. You don’t want lodging due to too much N fertilizer. I have used liquid and dry fertilizer and they have both worked for me.”

He usually applies broadleaf weed control in the fall. “I spray the first year in the fall and often do not need further broadleaf weed control after that. I control wild oats in the spring at the proper leaf stages and for sure as early as I can. If you use the wrong chemical when the crop is booting, you lose yield.” Nels would also like to see more research into plant disease control on grass seed crops to see what works and what type of return can be expected.

Nels has a lot of experience with harvesting grass seed crops. “Give the head a nice gentle tap and if some seeds start to pop out or shatter it is time to swath. Talk to other growers to see how they determine when to swath. If you go too early, you will get smaller seed with lower germination. Swathing requires a very sharp knife and guards and you need to travel slow. If there is gum buildup on the knife; spray water on the knife to dissolve it. It takes patience, but water will work as well as anything. In other years we have done hundreds of acres without any gumming.”

“Combining grass seed is similar to combining slightly tough oats. You need to travel slower than wheat. Don’t be afraid to throw what looks like seed over the back. Grab a hand full of the chaff and take a knife and cut it. If it pops there is seed in it. If it doesn’t pop it is just chaff. Don’t try to save it all or you will have a tough time handling the crop in your truck, bin and at the cleaning plant.”

More advice for a new grass seed grower... “You will need to spend your summer looking after your crop. You won’t have time to spend the summer at the lake because Slender Wheatgrass is ready to swath about 3 weeks before wheat, Crested Wheatgrass is ready about 2 weeks before wheat, and Intermediate is ready at about the same time as wheat.” But Nels purposely selected these crops because of the early harvest. It allows him to space out harvest and get a lot of work done before his other crops are ready.

Good storage with good aeration will allow the crop to be combined a bit tough and aeration works well with grasses because the air easily goes through it. “Dry it out really well. I have never actually over dried my grass seed. If the seed was put into the bin hot, use aeration to cool it to save your germination.”

Grass seed will compress in the bin, so you need large openings in your hopper. If you have a flat bottom bin, compaction is not as much of a problem, but shovelling is very very dusty.

Nels has always gone with a contract and usually contracts about 75 per cent of his production. “If you contract, you usually don’t have to store the crop for a long time. If you don’t have a contract you may get a higher price, but you may have to wait for a year or two.”

When asked about the key to grass seed production, Nels says “Having patience is the key to growing forage crops. Roguing and marketing. It all takes time. And talk to other grass seed growers to find out what has gone wrong and right for them.“

Posted June 4, 2015