Soon, Nebraska growers will hit the fields to plant next year's winter wheat crop. And while winter wheat acres have taken a hit in Nebraska, thanks to low prices and disease pressure over the last few years, the percentage of acres planted with certified seed has also taken a hit.
In an average year, however, certified seed typically makes up about 70% of Nebraska's planted winter wheat acres. Since the high of 73% in 2013, that number declined slightly to 71% in 2014, to 63% in 2015 and to about 47% in 2016, according to the Nebraska Crop Improvement Association.
Royce Schaneman, Nebraska Wheat Board executive director, notes a big reason for the decline is likely due to the overall drop in wheat acres in Nebraska. Price is also a factor, and back in 2013, prices were in the $7 to $8 per bushel. "The bad thing about low prices is we start to cut things out in a money-saving effort that maybe in the long run doesn't save much money," says Schaneman.
Added costs of saved seed
That is, these growers don't always consider the cost of cleaning, transporting and storing seed.
"If growers don't have seed cleaned, they're probably putting weed seed and chaff back through their drill. They can plug up their drill, or risk planting weed seed in their fields. For those that are having it cleaned, they're charged per unit to clean it, while certified seed's already cleaned for them,"" says Steve Knox, director of the Nebraska Crop Improvement Association. "Growers who use saved seed don't always test seed for germination. That's an added cost that's already paid within certified seed. Trucking and storage and their time to do all of those things are also major cost considerations with planting bin-run seed."
Certified seed typically has a germination rate of 98% to 99%. Meanwhile, unless bin-run seed is tested, germination is largely a guess. "Some growers will say, 'I've rolled it in a paper towel and sprouted in my window.’ As soon as they see a sprout, they think it's good," says Knox. "That's not good enough. At our lab, we grow it until it develops all the vegetative structures necessary so that we know it's a viable plant. Some seeds will sprout and develop a root, but no vegetative parts."
In 2017, wheat seed costs roughly $7.50 to $8 per 50-pound bag. Testing bin-run seed with the Crop Improvement Association costs $17. According to statistics from UNL's 2016 Custom Rate Survey, cleaning wheat seed cost about $1.10 per bushel, and the average cost of treating wheat seed was $2.92 per bushel — although survey responses were fairly limited.
"The question becomes, are you really saving that much by using saved seed?" notes Stephen Baenziger, University of Nebraska-Lincoln agronomy professor and Nebraska Wheat Growers presidential chair.
Get what you pay for
Research and survey data continually show certified seed outyields saved seed by 1 to 10 bushels per acre; although most years, it's probably closer to 3 to 5 bushels.
This has only improved with private industry's continued commitment to the wheat seed business, and it's important to remember that many varieties released today are protected under the Plant Variety Protection Act or a U.S. patent. Although an exemption to the 1994 amended PVPA allows growers to save seed produced from any legally purchased PVPA-protected variety for future planting, varieties with a patented gene, like BASF's Clearfield varieties, cannot be saved to replant.
Last year it was announced Baenziger would lead a project to develop lines of hybrid wheat — the next step on the path of higher-yielding wheat. And Baenziger notes just like hybrid corn, hybrid wheat will not only necessitate buying certified seed, but also make it more attractive.
"At one time there were 900 breeders for corn and 120 wheat breeders in the U.S. It's because of the profitability and investment in corn because of increased yields," he says. "It will be harder to get a yield increase in a hexaploid crop like wheat, but having seed that's worth more because the grower gets more out of it, that will change the technology that goes into wheat."
However, Baenziger adds growers have gained ground in using certified seed in the last 25 years. "When I first came to UNL, Texas was probably growing less than 10% certified seed, Nebraska was around 24%," he says. "Now Nebraska is at about 50% [as of 2016]. And in the Pacific Northwest, it's well over 90%. So the trend is clearly in the right direction."