Corn seed should be available, but inventory smaller

Issue Date: March 14, 2012
By Ching Lee

Production problems caused by drought, persistent rain and other weather issues last year in the nation's key corn-growing regions have reduced this year's seed inventory, but seed companies and suppliers say California farmers should still be able to buy what they need—although certain popular varieties may be harder to come by.

"There's seed in the barn, so that's the good story," said Levi Tipton, a Western-area agronomist for Pioneer. "We do have adequate supply out there for the 2012 growing season."

Despite unfavorable growing conditions in the Midwest last year, Tipton said Pioneer had "contingency plans in place" to manage the company's supply of seed, including "extensive operations" in South America that produce seed for the Northern Hemisphere.

"If we don't have that perfect product that has tons of demand, we have other very high-performing products that have been tested here locally," he said.

Theo de Haan, a Kings County dairy farmer, said he typically likes to buy seed when the price is right but made his purchase in early winter after hearing reports that there would be a shortage on certain varieties. As with most California dairy farmers who grow corn, de Haan grows it for silage as feed for his cattle.

De Haan's son-in-law, Brian Bergman, who does the farming for the family operation, said his seed supplier told him early on not to wait to buy because the specific varieties he's had much success with in the past were disappearing fast, particularly longer-season varieties such as the 116- and 117-day corn.

"Sometimes they use that as a ploy: 'Hey, we need to get these sold.' But this year, they were really telling the truth. There were definitely seed shortages," Bergman said, noting that he locked up the majority of his purchase in November and December. "I didn't get everything that I wanted, but I got close."

Other dairy farmers such as Kurt Hoekstra of Stanislaus County and Daniel Vander Dussen of Glenn County also said they had heard about potential seed shortages but acted early and were able to buy the varieties and quantities they wanted.

"I guess it's one of those 'early bird catches the worm' things," Fresno County dairy farmer Donny Rollin said. "If you're going to wait, you're going to get what's left over."

Rollin said he met with his seed representative last week and didn't have any problems reserving seed.

"It's not like there won't be corn seed for guys to plant," he said. "It's just the heaviest-yielding varieties, the ones that are proven and true, are going to be the first ones to go."

To ensure there's adequate production to meet demand, Tipton said Pioneer uses extensive sales data, information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and constant communication with its customers to forecast planting intentions.

He noted the significant amount of lead time that went into production of the 2012 seed crop, which was being planted as late as last July, while the parent seed was produced the year before that. And even with shortages of some seed varieties, Tipton said the company does not usually raise prices based on supply and demand, but does offer special pricing early in the season to help with logistics in shipping and getting product to market.

Jay Gilbert, general manager of Farmers Warehouse, a retailer in Keyes that sells seed and feed, said he has had more early seed sales this year than ever, because farmers are locking up their purchases sooner rather than later.

He pointed out that some seed-production regions in South America also experienced weather problems that resulted in crop failures, leading to unavailability of certain seeds. But he said there are equivalent varieties that farmers could easily substitute.

"The seed companies all carry a pretty large inventory over and above what they use in any particular year, so there'll just be less carryover and more of it will be used," he said.

Stan Bettencourt, a crop advisor for Stanislaus Farm Supply who grows feed for California dairies, said farmers and seed companies have known since last year that there could be a seed shortage due to production woes and the nation's projected record corn acreage that has driven up demand. But even with fewer seeds on the market, Bettencourt said he's sure "we're going to sort through it and get everybody planted."

San Joaquin Valley farmers typically plant their corn silage in early April or when soil temperatures reach about 60 degrees, Bettencourt said, adding that they use varieties that mature anywhere from 80 to 120 days, with 100- to 105-day varieties being the most popular.

Mycogen Seeds has reported that it has "ample supply of long-season silage corn hybrids" for its California and Arizona customers, including 117- and 123-day varieties that offer traits such as herbicide resistance and tolerance to drought and spider mites.

But Bettencourt said he expects to see farmers shift from longer-season varieties to shorter-season varieties this year, not because of seed availability but because of water uncertainties.

"If you're short on water, you're going to plant something that fits your water schedule so you can have it mature all the way to the end and get the right kind of production," he said.

While seed suppliers urge their customers to order early to beat the rush, Bettencourt said he doesn't believe farmers who wait to buy will necessarily be out of luck. He said those who have adequate water will have more flexibility.

"If you didn't buy it early, it could potentially be a problem because the pipeline is a little empty and you may have to shift to something else," he said. "I believe you'll get planted. It just may not be your first choice."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.