Choosing your seed. Certified or farm-saved?

There’s general agreement on the merits of certified seed, but a new study shows one isn’t extra yield

A Saskatchewan study compared vigour and yield performance of 48 lots of certified and farm-saved seed.

Does certified seed beat bin-run seed for yield? A 2004 survey of 800 Prairie growers indicated that 70 to 80 per cent of their cereal acres were seeded to farm-saved seed (FSS), which suggests they don’t think so. But while a recent two-year study indicates they’re right, that doesn’t mean certified seed doesn’t provide extra value.

More recent statistics are lacking, but certified acres may be gaining some ground as midge-tolerant varieties are now common and these varieties can only be used one year past certified, says Mike Hall, a researcher at Saskatchewan’s East Central Research Foundation and Parkland College.

Certified seed is the product of the final generation of inspected seed crops produced by Canadian Seed Growers’ Association (CSGA) seed growers and is “true to type,” meaning it is between 99.7 and 99.9 per cent genetically pure. The CSGA website says that among other benefits, certified seed can offer improved yield and pest and disease resistance as well as end-use qualities, plus third-party quality assurance. The purchase of certified seed also spurs investment in genetic improvement of seed varieties and gives producers access to premium markets.

But data from the first two years of a study led by Hall and funded by the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission shows little to no statistical difference between the performance of farm-saved seed wheat and certified seed wheat.

The study, which is being conducted at several AgriARM sites across Saskatchewan, set out to compare vigour and yield performance of several varieties of farm-saved versus certified wheat seed. In the first two years, 48 seed lots of each were compared.

FSS lots ranged from one to five years removed from certified, but on average the lots were 2.1 years past certified. The quality was comparable. In 2019, the certified seed vigour was 93.1 per cent, not statistically different to the 93.3 per cent scored by FSS. The following year, the vigour of the FSS was slightly lower than certified.

On average, certified seed yielded 66.3 bu./ac. with a protein of 13.4 per cent vs. 65.9 bu./ac. and protein of 13.5 per cent for FSS. Hall says these differences also weren’t statistically significant.

The study also tested the effectiveness of seed treatment on vigour. On some sites in some years it had a positive effect, but when averaged across sites did not significantly affect yield. This could be partly because over the first two years of the study, growing conditions were not conducive to disease pressure.

Hall says the upshot of the study’s findings so far is that the use of FSS for a couple of years past certified carries very little production risk. But he adds that the premium price for certified seed is justified and helps promote the industry’s long-term success.

“On a global basis we need to be supporting a breeding system that’s constantly bringing new genetics to the farm so we can stay competitive. The exact way in which that system can be supported is under debate.” 

Exact acreage unknown

Michael Scheffel, managing director of policy and standards at the CSGA, says he isn’t surprised by the results coming out of Saskatchewan.

He says most western Canadian farmers buy certified seed when they want to upgrade to a newer variety or when their FSS isn’t of good quality due to environmental conditions. But the statistics on how many farmers are planting certified seed each year are lacking.

“We know exactly how many acres of pedigreed seed production there are in Canada, but when it comes to sales of certified seed there are no good numbers out there. It’s all anecdotal,” Scheffel says. “We know, for example, that there is probably twice as much certified wheat and barley seed produced every year than gets sold as seed.”

Part of the reason is that in certified seed production there’s often more cleanout, so the yield of the finished product might not be as high. Some might not meet germination standards so it cannot be sold, or becomes carryover.

“It’s a good thing, because it means there’s choice, and only the best seed lots will go to market. It provides a certain resiliency, so if there are particularly bad or widespread environmental issues, at least we have enough to satisfy the requirements of the following year. You hope you have more production than is required for planting,” Scheffel says.

Jake Leguee is chair of SaskWheat’s research committee. He cites a 2018 report called Canada’s Seed System: Economic Impact Assessment and Risk Analysis, prepared by JRG Consulting. It estimates that certified seed acreage can run as low as 13 per cent for durum wheat in Western Canada.

Leguee says most farmers will stick with seed wheat varieties for a few years and buy seed when they want to switch varieties, or when required by licensing agreements. “Some farmers will replace it every year, but not many,” he says.

“Certainly when you get certified seed, you know what you’re getting — you’re getting a good product. What we don’t know is if the yield is different. On my farm, when we bring in a new variety we compare it to the older variety, but we’re comparing variety difference, not new seed to old seed. Am I hurting myself by not upgrading to certified more regularly? It is expensive, so I need to know there is a benefit to doing it.”

Leguee says a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the relative cost of FSS to certified seed might look something like this: if he’s cleaning his own durum seed he’d take the market price — say $9/bu. — and add the cost of cleaning, between 50 cents and $1 depending on the region. On new certified seed, he’d pay $14-15/bu.

“It’s not a huge difference, but it’s a cash difference,” he says. “I don’t have to write a cheque for the seed on my farm — I’m taking it out of the bin.”

But check the vigour

Scheffel says he occasionally jokes with his colleagues that the reason so many producers use FSS is that the organization’s quality standards are so high the farmer can reproduce the product a number of times and still get great results.

It may be less important for producers to plant certified cereal seed year after year than it is for other crops, he says, because the seed is less prone to damage during harvest than pulses and soybeans.

“The quality assurance that comes with certified seed, especially with those kinds of crops, may provide for additional assurances to the farmer in those circumstances. Barley, wheat and oats are much more resilient to harvest and processing damage.”

It’s still up to the farmer to do germination and vigour testing in the spring as close to planting as possible, and to use best practices for planting and harvest.

So far, there’s no research to back recommendations on exactly how far out from certified farmers can go before there’s an appreciable quality difference. Scheffel says most producers will be looking to upgrade to the newest varieties at the four- to five-year mark anyway.

He adds that seed quality makes a huge difference in results. “Provincial governments used to do ‘seed drill surveys’ to see exactly what farmers were planting and it wasn’t pretty sometimes, but that was a long time ago.” 

Leguee thinks farmers will closely follow the results as they roll in. At the coffee shop — or on Twitter — views on certified seed versus FSS run the gamut, he says, with some farmers saying they buy certified every year, and some saying it’s a complete waste of money.

Most farmers, like Leguee, are somewhere in the middle.

“I’m supportive of buying certified seed on a regular basis to ensure we have an effective and healthy variety development system. But it also makes sense, when you get a new variety you really like, to take advantage of that and save it for a couple of years.”

About the author

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Julienne Isaacs

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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