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Harvest Timing for Your Uncommon Seed Production Crop

No two growing seasons are the same, and 2023 has certainly brought some challenges for seed producers. 

BrettYoung Seed Production Specialist, Rebecca McCleary, said this spring’s weather was optimal for seeding.

“Fields dried up rapidly and growers were able to start seeding sooner rather than later,” she said.

McCleary noted growers in the northernmost point of her territory, The Pas, started seeding earlier than normal, which is essentially unheard of since their fields are on old lake beds and peat, which usually takes a while to dry up.

“Although the dry weather made it perfect for seeding, we started to reach a point where we were looking for rain,” said McCleary. “Seed was in the ground but needed some moisture to really start to take off.”

Some areas did get the moisture they needed. Other areas, though, weren’t so lucky. The weather’s been flip flopping across the Prairies from scorching, dry heat to vigorous thunderstorms with a lot of rain. That heat allows crops to germinate and grow more quickly, but it poses problems like drought and storms. The constant among all this uncertainty? Humidity.

“A warm summer can mean rapid growth,” said McCleary. “We’ve been seeing this already where some of our established perennial ryegrass crops seem to be ahead of where they normally are at this time of year.”

She said if we get adequate moisture this season, it will alleviate crop stress. With the above-30-degrees temperatures, though, moisture is becoming an issue for many growers.

“If conditions are consistently dry and hot, then we can see crops completing their life cycles more rapidly,” said McCleary. “They’ll go into their reproductive phase sooner, throwing out seed heads quicker than normal because of stress and producing less tillers.”

This, she said, is not ideal. Hot weather also tends to bring in more thunderstorms as we’ve been seeing, which can sometimes mean hail, damaging crops even more.

McCleary said because of the heat speeding up crops’ growth, we’re likely looking at an earlier harvest this year than others. Tall fescue crops are normally swathed mid to late July, perennial ryegrass crops are normally swathed late July to early August, and timothy is swathed in early August. McCleary said this year, we could see more swathing happening in July than in August.

“For some crops, especially those that are lacking moisture currently, this is a result of stress from these warm temperatures,” she said. “For those who currently have good moisture, this might just be optimal growing conditions quickening the pace.”

How do you know it’s time to harvest your crop, though?

Watch for colour change in your plants. When your fescue or perennial ryegrass crop starts looking tanner in colour, you’re getting close to swathing. For perennial ryegrass specifically, McCleary said you can test by grabbing a few seed heads and shaking the seed into your palm. If it’s ready to be harvested, the seed should shatter relatively easily, and you should end up with a handful of mostly tan-coloured seed. Some green seeds are OK, but lots of green seeds means the crop isn’t ready to come off just yet.

“If you think you’re getting close to swath timing, you can always do a test cut,” said McCleary. “The stubble should be tan or white-ish in colour. If the stubble is mainly green, give it some more time.”

For tall fescue, the seed heads will ripen and the stem beneath the seed head will start to turn colour, indicating it’s time to swath. For timothy, you’ll start to see what’s called “tipping” — this is when the tip of the timothy heads start to shell seed, leaving a thin core sticking up from the top of the head. This is a good indicator it’s time to start swathing.

Crop SpeciesSigns of MaturitySwath TimingHarvest Timing
Perennial Ryegrass– Crop is tan in colour
– Seeds shatter easily when shaken into palm
– Mainly tan/ripe seeds
– Tan/white stubble when cutting
Late July – Early Aug~ 7 days after swathing
Tall Fescue– Crop is tan in colour
– Mainly tan/ripe seeds
-Stem below seedhead is tan in colour
Mid – Late July5 – 7 days after swathing
Timothy– Crop is tan in colourEarly Aug5 – 7 days after swathing
*Swath timing this year will likely be in the earlier range of the above timelines

These crops will remain in the swath for about seven days (weather dependent) before they see the combine.

McCleary has three recommendations for a successful seed production harvest:

  • Utilize your Seed Production Specialist for support — they will help you determine proper harvest timing and can help with combine settings
  • Swathing at night or early in the morning can help reduce shatter losses
  • Crops can change a lot in a day. When it’s getting close to swath timing, keep a close eye on your field so you don’t miss the ideal window
  • Keeping an eye on your grass crops in the bin after harvest and turning and aerating them occasionally.

And you can start preparing now to have success next year. If you have a new grass stand that was seeded this spring, make sure to get some fertilizer on it this fall — this helps the stand take off the following spring. Also, if you’re planning to plant for seed production next spring, try to get your field as clean as possible beforehand and for newly planted stands, leave eight to 10 inches of stubble behind when harvesting your companion crop to allow for the best chance at overwintering success.

To learn more about producing seed with BrettYoung, click here.

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