ROSEAU, Minn. – One of Minnesota’s best kept farming secrets is the successful production of grass seed in northern Minnesota.
With cool summer nights, Kittson, Red Lake, Pennington, Polk, Roseau, Lake of the Woods, Koochiching, Marshall and Beltrami counties farmland supports raising grass for seed.
The seed is generally harvested in July and August. It is processed and packaged at local grass seed processing facilities and shipped around the world for use in all types of turf seed, golf courses, lawns and pastures.
Each year, Minnesota Crop Improvement Association (MCIA) personnel inspect and certify Perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass and other grasses for seed production.
“What we are looking for is varietal purity, that the standards are followed for crop rotation and isolation, along with agronomic issues,” said Kris Folland, MCIA field supervisor for northern Minnesota.
Grass seed programs – including certification, field inspections and seed plant facility inspections – form the third largest program within MCIA.
“We have a very long history back to the first Certified grass seed fields,” said Folland.
History of Minnesota grass production
Farmers in northwest Minnesota raised clovers and linseed in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s, they found that grass for seed grew well.
“It’s a microclimate,” said Richard Magnusson, president of the Northern Minnesota Grass Seed Growers. “It’s cooler and a little wetter.”
By the 1960s, thousands of acres of Kentucky bluegrass were planted in the area. Then seed processing facilities were built for cleaning, processing and distributing seed.
Today, there are three processing plants in the area, and 60-70 grass seed growers.
“Seed production was huge in the 1970s, with production going to Europe,” said Magnusson. “Timothy was a big companion crop with alfalfa. Later on, that became less important.”
In the 21st Century, Perennial ryegrass is the major grass seed produced in northern Minnesota – due to demand.
“It’s put in a 50 pound bag, reshipped to companies and then mixed and bagged in 10 pound bags for homeowners,” Magnusson said.
As the potential for grass seed production increased in Minnesota, growers turned to the University of Minnesota for cultivars. Private industry now also provides some cultivars, but Minnesota’s grass industry continues to rely on the University of Minnesota for varieties, research and Extension education.
“We are a small community,” Magnusson said. “Because of that, we work closely with our researchers. We know them on a first-name basis.”
In early July 2012, farmers noted some escaped weeds in their grass fields due to the drought. They began asking the researchers if it was too late to spray herbicide on perennial ryegrass.
“A week later, the University of Minnesota had a trial out putting on herbicides,” he said. “It was too late for this year, but the information will be helpful in the future.”
The University of Minnesota Turfgrass Science department includes Sam Bauer, Turfgrass Extension Educator; Nancy Ehlke, Turfgrass Seed Production; Brian Horgan, Turfgrass Management; Mary Meyer, Ornamental Grasses; Eric Watkins, Turfgrass Breeding and Genetics; Andrew Hollman, Scientist; Craig Krueger, Field Facility Manager, and Donn Vellekson, Research Plot Coordinator in Seed Production.
Agronomy professor, Don Wyse, conducts weed science research, and Dave Grafstrom, Northland College Instructor and University of Minnesota Magnusson Research Farm Coordinator, works with the Minnesota Turf Council and the Northern Minnesota Grass Seed Growers each summer.
Grass, as well as small grain research, is conducted at the Magnusson Research Farm, a 40-acre farm, given to the University of Minnesota by the Magnusson family.
In mid-December, grass growers come together to learn more about the year’s Perennial ryegrass production. They also participate in a Grass Seed Institute each February.
Minnesota Crop Improvement’s role
Under the direction of MCIA Field Supervisor Folland, inspectors check thousands of acres of grass from June to August.
The variety certification inspections include not just Perennial ryegrass and Kentucky bluegrass, but also Timothy, reed canary grass, legumes and other minor grasses.
Perennial ryegrass has been successfully raised, and acres have increased substantially since 2005.
“You can grow it almost anywhere in northwest Minnesota, and we could easily add acres into North Dakota if we had interested growers,” Folland said.
The Minnesota Crop Improvement Association also annually certifies grass seed conditioning facilities as Approved Seed Conditioning facilities.
Perennial ryegrass is planted in the spring, underseeded with small grains, or in the fall into stubble. The seed is harvested the next year in August. Kentucky bluegrass is planted in the same way, and can be harvested for one to 20 years.
Folland explained that growers rotate grass with wheat, soybeans and canola, and grass seed production costs about the same as wheat production.
He wants readers to be aware that the commitment and dedication of the grass seed processors keeps grass seed production a viable crop in northern Minnesota.
“We have three grass seed companies that push, promote and process seed,” Folland said. “That’s why it works. The grass seed companies, conditioners and farmers have been the drivers behind the success.”
The grass industry has also welcomed the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association as a needed member of the industry. They recognize the important work that the certifying agency performs to assure high quality grass seed reaches customers around the world.
Together, they work to keep grass seed production an important part of the agricultural economy in northern Minnesota.
Richard Magnusson holds a sample of Perennial ryegrass with a research plot of Perennial ryegrass behind him at the Magnusson Research Farm.