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How to Get the Native Seed You Want :

A Producer's Perspective
Claire Gabriel Dunne

Presented at the Sagebrush Steppe Ecosystems Symposium
Boise State University, Boise Idaho
June 21-23, 1999

Some species of native seed are available. The Conservation Reserve Program has increased the demand for certain native species such as:

  • Thickspike Wheatgrass (Elymus macrourus)

  • Bluebunch Wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata)

  • Slender Wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus)

  • Streambank Wheatgrass (Elymus lanceolatus)

  • Western Wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii)

  • Big Bluegrass (Poa ampla)

  • Canby Bluegrass (Poa canbyi)

  • Sandberg Bluegrass (Poa segunda)

  • Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi)

  • Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

  • Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis)

  • Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)

  • Indian Ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides)

  • Green Needlegrass (Nassella virdula)

  • Prairie Sandreed (Calamovilfa longifolia)

In response to the huge demand, native seed growers have increased acreage; and although prices are high, they will drop precipitously in the lag time between the end of Conservation Reserve Program and the time growers start to plow under their stands owing to low prices. You can buy seed by inviting reputable seed companies to offer you a bid, preferably requesting Pure Live Seed pounds (for a written discussion of PLS contact the author).

If the species you desire is not commercially available, you can collect the seed yourself. Carefully note the location of the site, since it will be much harder to find out of bloom. You may need to revisit the site two or three times to determine ripeness; a rule of thumb: seed ripens four weeks after bloom. When most of the seed is nearly ripe, take samples from several plants and cut at least 25 seeds to determine "fill." Filled seed contains a "nutmeat." Learn what the seed looks like from books or by experience; use a hand lens. Early in my career I collected a whole bag of Potentilla fruticosa anthers! Try to harvest before wind, insects, feathered or hoofed predators take it first. Fresh seed is damp; store it only in porous bags or boxes. Most seed must be spread out and stirred a few times a day until air dried, or the material will heat up or mold. The last major hurdle awaiting the unwary is seed cleaning damage. Many seeds are delicate and can be damaged by the improper application of horsepower and steel.

An increasing hazard to wildland collecting is the inexorable spread of noxious weeds thoughout the land. Many former collecting areas must be avoided by conscientious collectors because the risk of noxious weed contamination is too high. For example, knapweed species (Centaurea sp.) produce seeds borne on parachutes that float in the air until they might hang-up in the nearby foliage of snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). Learning the appearance of noxious weeds in your area in their dried condition will help avoid collecting from a contaminated patch.

If the process of collecting is daunting, you can contract a custom collection from professional seed collector. It is likely a collector will be able to gather enough seed for your test plot or to have grown into plants in a nursery. On the other hand, collecting enough to direct sow over even a few acres may be an herculean and expensive task. In the arid West, for example, most native species produce seed only once every 7 to 10 years. The second factor limiting collection is the scarcity of large, homogeneous, flat, accessible stands of natives. It is common for collectors from several states to converge on a good patch of seed with mechanized equipment.

If you desire a reliable supply of certain species year after year, the best bet is to contract field production. There is inevitably some inadvertent selection in the field of certain traits, e.g., the earliest and last seed to ripen are not harvested, thereby selecting for a narrower bloom and ripening period. On the other hand, field production controls many of the variables needed to grow good seed such as moisture, competition for nutrients and light, ungulate grazing (though insect and wildlife grazing can be serious), and timely harvest. Perhaps the most important is noxious weed control. Inspectors from the Crop Improvement Association will check not only for weeds in the crop field, but also for noxious weeds in ditch banks or other nearby areas.

To increase the chances of having seed available when your project requires reseeding, contract a minimum of 3 years ahead, though some species may take ten years to fruition. If, you can give the farmer enough seed for several acres the first planting season, he can multiply the stock seed by Year 2 or Year 3. However, if he has only enough seed to plant a 10-foot row, he will produce enough in Year 2 to plant a quarter acre in Year 3. That quarter acre will come to fruition Year 5 for sowing of several acres Year 6. Thus, you won't see large scale production until Year 8, assuming all else went well and none of the crops were lost along the way, to hail, rabbits, flood, the canal breaking in the heat of the summer, or other perils of agriculture.

If there is a large, stable demand, prices are lower, and farmers can use economies of scale to supply large quantities at lower unit prices. If land managers promise to order, say 10,000 pounds of Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) a year, several farmers will rise to meet the demand by risking planting a crop. These are the aspects of agriculture: supply, demand, and risk.

Larger orders encourage cleaning facilities to invest in technology. Effective cleaning machinery such as variable speed hammermills, debearders, fanning mills, aspirators, length separators, and gravity separators are essential. Frequently, characteristics of the seed obstruct our attempt to achieve high purity. Many shrubs, such as winterfat (Ceratoides lanata), are cleaned to only about 80 percent purity owing to the fuzz attached to the utricle; removing the fuzzy utricle reveals a delicate nutlet which loses viability if not sown promptly. Also, the hair on the "pods" may aid germination by gluing the seed to the soil or by absorbing moisture. With these constraints in mind, the best an experienced conditioner can provide is large bags of fluffy utricles with stems removed. Conditioners are quite inventive; the late Roger Stewart built a "cannon" to shoot the product across the warehouse, allowing the heavier stems to fall short and the lighter utricles to be swept up and bagged.

Those of us in the private sector would like to see government facilities continue to provide research and development work, as have the NRCS Plant Materials Centers and ARS for decades. We find it hard to compete, however, with government subsidized facilities such as the USDA Forest Service nurseries, which are growing native seeds. Unlike a farmer on private land, agency nurseries operate on public land, pay no taxes and have free marketing and advertizing. The more government agencies win production bids, the fewer natural resources grads find work in the private sector. Private growers will be delighted, on the other hand, if public nurseries develop germination, production, and conditioning methods for useful species such as elk sedge (Carex geyeri) and pinegrass (Calamagrostis rubescens), thereby transferring the technology to private growers.

 
Copyright Wind River Seed Inc. 2003

 

 

 

 

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