A future for regional Kentucky bluegrass seed production looks green again, despite changes 25 years ago that once made it look bleak.
That’s because of gains in developing new bluegrass seed varieties that can produce yields up to four or five years, along with a market in food production for livestock and overseas demand for grass straw, said Paul Dashiell, co-owner of Tekoa, Washington-based Seeds Inc.
Today, the Washington Turfgrass Seed Commission estimates that roughly 90 farms grow Kentucky bluegrass seed in the state. Most are irrigated farms in central Washington, and others are dry-land farms in Eastern Washington.
The industry has adapted since field burning ceased in the 1990s in Washington and around 2007 in Idaho except on tribal lands, and under carefully monitored conditions, Dashiell said.
“Somehow, physiologically, bluegrass knows to put up a big seed crop the next year if it’s been burnt – why, we don’t know,” he said. “Since we quit burning, we’ve developed some varieties and it’s taken all these years to do that. We’ve found some varieties that will produce; it’s a shorter rotation, but up to three to five years without burning.”
Turning 72 this year and starting in the industry at age 11, Dashiell’s seen it all.
“My dad was among the ones who started the grass seed industry down here in the late ’40s, early ’50s,” he said. His dad, Tom, started the company with a few regional farmers, but now it’s solely family-owned.
Dashiell said some issues for farmers without burning include more erosion and weeds in grass seed fields, and they have to compensate with weed control spray and use more fuel to mow, increasing costs.
“We also had to figure out what to do with all the straw that was left over, all the residue, and we wound up baling it. It took awhile to build an infrastructure to handle those thousands of tons of straw that we virtually thought were useless. In fact, we used to have to pay people to bale it; that was an additional cost, then it got to where we found usages for it.”
He said ranchers and feedlots, especially when the price of alfalfa rose, started buying the baled grass straw to supplement feed for horses and cows.
“They actually like it,” he said.
“In fact, we built a feed plant now as one of our operations where we take bluegrass and alfalfa or Timothy, and we’ll mix it and make feed out of it, make pellets, and then it goes into the feed chain.”
The farm delivers it to AFCO, formerly called Aslin-Finch, in Spokane, Dashiell said. AFCO is owned by Skagit Farm Supply.
A senior horse mix is one popular commodity. Another success is exporting grass straw to places in India and elsewhere in Asia. The livestock in those countries aren’t used to rich feed such as alfalfa, he said, and animals such as camels and goats are fed bluegrass straw.
Bluegrass seed itself remains popular in the U.S. for fields and lawns, but the company exports “all over the world.”
“The straw, we’ve had to develop ways to get rid of that, and we’ve been fairly successful at it the last few years. The seeds, we sell over all the U.S, into Canada and all over Europe.”
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