Buying and Sourcing Cover Crop Seed for Organic Farming Systems

Organic Agriculture July 29, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

eOrganic author:

Danielle Treadwell, University of Florida

Source:

Adapted from: Treadwell, D., W. Klassen, M. Alligood, and S. Shewey. 2008. Annual cover crops in Florida vegetable systems Part 3. Buying and sourcing. HS1142. Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville.

Things to Consider When Purchasing Cover Crop Seed

Sources

Demand for cover crop seed is greater than ever. Organic producers who desire to reduce production costs and conserve natural resources are increasingly turning to cover crops as a method to accomplish those goals. This demand has encouraged research and breeding efforts on cover crop species. Seed sold in the U.S. is produced domestically as well as abroad. Winter annual cover crops including legumes and cereal grains are produced mostly in the northeast and in Canada. Many tropical summer legumes are produced in Hawaii, and some varieties of tropical legumes may come from Asia, India, and South America.

Oat Saia Cover Crop by Mikio Miyazoe
Figure 1. Oat 'Saia' cover crop. Photo credit: Mikio Miyazoe, Oregon State University.

Organic cover crop seed

The National Organic Program regulations on annual seeds, including cover crop seeds, state that organically grown seeds must be used, when commercially available (CFR 205.204). If a grower can demostrate to the certifying agent that organic seed was not available, conventionally-grown, untreated seed can be used. Many commercially available cover crop seeds have been treated with prohibited substances such as a synthetic fungicide, but in many cases untreated seed is available. Fungicide- or insecticide-treated seeds may not be used by organic producers.

Nonorganic, untreated seeds can be used as a last resort in the following situations:

  • When an equivalent organically-produced variety is not available, untreated seeds may be used.
  • When a temporary variance has been granted by the producer’s certification agency, if approved by the USDA in response to a natural disaster or for research purposes.

Treated seeds can be used in the following situations:

  • When the seed treatment is allowed by the NOP (such as certain seed pelleting materials for small seeded crops).
  • When Federal or State phytosanitary regulations require that seed be treated with a prohibited substance (such as a synthetic pesticide).

Producers who plant nonorganic untreated seed must provide documentation to support why organic seeds were not planted. Documentation typically includes a written account of at least three attempts (phone calls, written requests) for organic cover crop seed to support a substitution. Treated seed use must be supported by documented evidence of that use of the treatment was required under Federal or State phytosanitary regulations. Organic producers are required to save all seed labels for their records. As always, producers must get approval from their certification agency before making any changes or substitutions to their organic system plan (farm plan). Contact information of some seed suppliers that provide organic cover crop seed are identified in Table 2. For more information, see Sourcing Certified Organic Seed and the National Organic Program Regulations.

GMO-free cover crop seed

Organic producers are prohibited from planting seeds and planting stock grown using "excluded methods." The NOP defines "excluded methods" as, "A variety of methods used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production. Such methods include cell fusion, microencapsulation and macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (including gene deletion, gene doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes when achieved by recombinant DNA technology). Such methods do not include the use of traditional breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, or tissue culture."

Some retailers offer seed with claims that it is free of genetic material created by genetic engineering biotechnologies. The claim typically reads “GMO-free,” meaning seeds are free from genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Laboratory tests can detect genetically modified seed. If producers desire to have GMO-free seed, they should contact the retailer and request documentation for the claim. Several federal agencies are involved in the regulation and oversight of GMO seed and other agricultural products. Product claims of GMO-free are not regulated by the federal government.

Cost

There are many advantages to planting cover crops, such as reduced erosion, enhancement of biological control, and nutrient cycling. There may also be disadvantages, including additional production costs, delays in planting vegetables, increased pest occurrence and nitrogen immobilization. Most of these disadvantages can be avoided with a little research, good planning, and sound execution.

Cover crop costs and benefits should be evaluated based on the degree to which the cover crops fulfill agroecosystem services and production objectives. The complexity of cropping systems that include cover crops can make it extremely difficult to assign a dollar figure to the benefits, particularly those that are achieved in the long term. In one recent analysis of cover crop benefits and costs, cereal cover crops as a group were best suited to increase soil organic matter; legumes were best suited to provide nitrogen, while brassicas were most effective at controlling a wide spectrum of soil pests (Snapp et al., 2005).

The cost of seed will be influenced by the country of origin and the distance it must travel to get to your address. The cost per pound of cover crop seed is most often very reasonable for the ecological services cover crops provide (Snapp et al., 2005). A pound of winter annual rye typically costs between 75 cents to $2.00 a pound. When seeded to 50 pounds an acre, the cost ranges from $38 to $100 per acre.

Legume inoculants

When purchasing legume seeds, it is important to also purchase the correct inoculant. Inoculation is the application of specific nitrogen-fixing bacteria to the seeds before planting. Inoculation is allowed for organic production, so long as the inoculant is not genetically engineered.

The cross-inoculation groups of most of the field and forage legumes commonly grown are tabulated in the University of Florida IFAS Extension publication Nitrogen Fixation and Inoculation of Forage Legumes by Adjei et al. (2006). These nitrogen-fixing bacteria attach to roots of legumes and convert nitrogen gas from our atmosphere to a form of nitrogen that the legume can use. A summary of recommended inoculants for legumes is provided in Table 1. Inoculants are an inexpensive way to ensure a good stand and improve the efficiency of nitrogen fixation. They can be mixed in dry with cover crop seed before planting, but research indicates an improvement in nitrogen fixation is attained when a sticking agent is used (Clark, 2007). A mixture of 10% sugar syrup and water can be added to the cover crop seed prior to adding inoculant for improved contact and retention. The inoculant contains live organisms; therefore, do not expose inoculant to direct sun or excessive heat. Store inoculant in the refrigerator and use before the expiration date. Contact information for inoculant retailers is provided in Table 2.

Table 1. Recommended inoculants for legume cover crops.
Legume Recommended Inoculant Group(s)
Aeschynomene
Cowpeas
Lespedeza
Cowpeas or Lespedeza
Crimson clover
Berseem clover
Crimson or Berseem
Field peas
Hairy vetch
Woolypod vetch
Pea or Vetch
Medics Annual Medics
Red clover
White clover
Red clover or White clover
Subterranean clover Subterranean clover or Clover or Rose
Sweet clover Alfalfa or Sweet clover
Sunn hemp Cowpea EL (based on Abdul-Baki et al., 2001)
Velvetbean Cowpea EL (based on Piper and Morse, 1928)

Seed availability

Popular cover crops such as sorghum-sudangrass and cowpea have many named varieties and are widely available at local feed and seed stores and national seed retailers such as Johnny’s Seeds. Frequently, seeds of these varieties are treated with a fungicide to prevent seed-born diseases, but vendors are often very accommodating and with advance notice they will work with suppliers to reserve seed prior to treatment. Certified organic cover crop seed is becoming increasingly available, but demand is greater than supply and therefore seed can be expensive.

Cover crops with emerging popularity such as velvetbean and sunn hemp can be difficult to locate in large amounts. Many cover crops are sold as unnamed cultivars and are available from a limited number of sources. National retailers specializing in open pollinated seed are a good source for unnamed cultivars. Awareness of the diversity of cover crops has been facilitated by research efforts at universities and by innovative producers. However, cover crop breeding efforts at universities and private industries are sporadic. Perhaps, if demand for cover crops increases, there will be increased motivation to invest in research and development for crop improvement.

Sources of Cover Crops

For small farmers, a number of seed saving and exchange organizations can facilitate the search for specialty seed. In addition to the retailers listed in Table 2, there are a number of additional organizations (many are not-for-profit) that will provide certified organic seed, including  Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO), and Seed Savers Exchange. Additional resources include local seed and feed retailers, local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices, and area farmers.

Table 2. A summary of contact information for US retailers that sell cover crop seed and rhizobium inoculant.
Seed Company Products Contact Information
Southeast Retailers
Adams-Brisco Seed Co., Inc. Treated seed
Untreated seed upon request
Inoculant
325 East Second Street
PO Box 19
Jackson, GA 30233-0019
Phone (770) 775-7826
Fax (770) 775-7122
http://www.abseed.com/
C. M. Payne and Sons, Inc. Specialize in forage legumes Sebring, FL
Phone (941) 385-4642
Diamond R Fertilizer Treated seed
Untreated seed upon request
Custom seed mixes
321 N. Hennis Rd.
P.O. Box 12489
Winter Garden, FL 34787
Phone (407) 656-3007
Contact information for all locations available online:
http://www.diamond-r.com/locations.htm
Haile-Dean Seed Co. Treated seed 501 N. Hennis Rd.
Winter Garden, FL 34787
Phone (407) 877-3333 or (800) 423-7333
Mixon Seed Company Treated seed P.O. Box 1652
Orangeburg, SC 29116-1652
Phone (803) 531-1777 or (800) 922-1377
Fax: (803) 534-5027
Sawan Seeds, Inc. Treated seed P.O. Box 188
Pelham, GA 31779
Phone (229) 294-4953 or (800) 423 7333
Southern States Treated seed
Untreated seed upon request
Contact information for all locations available online:
http://southernstates.findlocation.com
Wise Seed Company, Inc. All Untreated seed 930 Highway 630 West
Frostproof, FL 33843
Phone (863) 635-4473
Fax (863) 635-4880
http://wiseseed.net/
Wolf & Wolf Seeds Organic seed
Untreated seed
541 South Orlando Ave., Suite 207
Maitland, FL 32751
Phone (407) 481-0810
Fax (407) 481-0840
http://www.wolfseeds.com
Northeast Retailers
Fedco Seeds Untreated Seed PO Box 520
Waterville, ME 04903
Phone (207) 873-7333
Fax (207) 873-7333
http://www.fedcoseeds.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds Treated Seed
Untreated seed
RR 1 Box 2580
Albion, ME 04910
Phone (800) 738-6314 or (207) 437-4395
http://www.johnnyseeds.com
North County Organics Untreated seed
Organic seed
PO Box 372
203 Depot Street
Bradford, VT 05033
Phone (802) 222-4277
Fax (802) 222-9661
http://www.norganics.com
Organic Growers Supply Untreated Seed
Organic seed
PO Box 520
Waterville, ME 04903-0520
Phone (207) 426-2066
Fax (207) 872-8317
http://www.fedcoseeds.com/ogs.htm
Western and Mid-western Retailers
Albert Lea Seedhouse, Inc. Treated seed
Untreated seed
Organic seed
PO Box 238
Albert Lea, MN 50007
Phone (800) 352-5247
Fax (507) 373-7032
http://www.alseed.com
Bailey Seed Company Untreated seed
Organic seed
PO Box 13517
Salem, OR 97309
Phone (800) 407-7713 or (503) 362-9700
Fax (503) 362-1705
http://www.baileyseed.com
Bountiful Gardens Untreated seed 18001 Shafer Ranch Road
Willits, CA 95490-9626
Phone (707) 459-6410
Fax (707) 459-1925
http://www.bountifulgardens.org/
Buckwheat Growers Assoc. Of Minnesota Untreated seed
Organic seed
GMO-free
PO Box 492
206 Aldrich Avenue SE
Wadena, MN 56482
Phone (218) 445-5475
Fax (218) 631-9212
http://www.buckwheatgrowers.com
EMD Crop BioScience (formerly Nitragin, Inc.) Rhizobial inoculants 13100 West Lisbon Avenue
Suite 600
Brookfield, WI 53005
Phone (262) 957-2000
Fax (262) 957-2121
http://www.nitragin.com/homepage.cfm
Harmony Farm Supply & Nursery Untreated seed
Organic seed
PO Box 460
3244 Hwy 116 N
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Phone (707) 823-9125
Fax (707) 825-1734
http://www.harmonyfarm.com
Kauffman Seeds Treated seeds
Untreated seeds
7508 S. Mayfield
Haven, KS 67543
Phone (620) 465-2245 or (800) 634-2836
Fax (620) 465-3565
Midwestern Bio-Ag Untreated seed
GMO-free seed
Box 160 Highway 1D
Blue Mounds, WI 53517
Phone (800) 327-6012
Fax (608) 437-4441
http://www.midwesternbioag.com
Planet Natural Untreated seed
Organic seed
1612 Gold Avenue
Bozeman, MT 59715
Phone (800) 289-6656
Fax (406) 587-0227
http://www.planetnatural.com
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply Untreated seed
Organic seed
PO Box 2209 110 Spring Hill Drive
Grass Valley, CA 95945
Phone (530) 272-4769
Fax: (530) 272-4794
http://www.groworganic.com
Territorial Seed Company Untreated seed PO Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR 97424-0061
Phone (541)942-9547
Fax (888) 657-3131
http://www.territorial-seed.com

Summary

In summary, integration of cover crops in a cropping system can have significant ecological impacts on the cropping system including crop establishment, nutrient availability, biodiversity enhancement, and pest occurrence. Producers have many options in cover crop species selection and management, and objectives will be dictated by producer needs and production constraints. Cover crop management does require some pre-planning, but the contributions to the farming system can be very beneficial. A plan for planting, mowing and termination are needed to avoid delays and costly errors. If you decide to try something new, be sure to ask about seed size and shape to determine if the seed is appropriate for the planting equipment on your farm. Experiment with a few well-selected species in an area large enough to accommodate the equipment you plan to use before implementing cover crops on the whole farm, if you are new to cover crops.

Organic Seed Databases

 

References and Citations

  • Abdul-Baki, A. A., H. H. Bryan, G. M. Zinati, W. Klassen, M. Codallo, and N. Heckert. 2001. Biomass yield and flower production in sunn hemp: Effect of cutting the main stem. Journal of Vegetable Crop Production 71:83–104.
  • Adjei, M. B., K. H. Quesenberry, and C. G. Chambliss. 2006. Nitrogen fixation and inoculation of forage legumes. AG152. Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville. (Available online at: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/AG152) (verified 3 Dec 2008).
  • Agricultural Marketing Service—National Organic Program [Online]. United States Department of Agriculture. Available at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/ (verified 8 Dec 2008).
  • CFR Section 7, Part 205.204, National organic program regulatory text [Online]. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. National Archives and Records Administration. Available at: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=a6a0935ddf00e166695f4c2138bd58d... (verified 15 Jan 2009).
  • Clark, A. (ed.) 2007. Managing cover crops profitably. 3rd ed. Sustainable Agriculture Network (now SARE Outreach), Beltsville, MD. (Available online at: http://www.sare.org/publications/covercrops/covercrops.pdf) (verified 11 Dec 2008).
  • Piper, C. V., and W. J. Morse. 1928. The velvet bean. Farmers’ bulletin No. 1276. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC.
  • Snapp, S. S., S. M. Swinton, R. Labarta, D. Mutch, J. R. Black, R. Leep, J. Nyiraneza, and K. O’Neil. 2005. Evaluating cover crops for benefits, costs and performance within cropping system niches. Agronomy Journal 97:322–332.

Further Reading

 

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.