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A buyer’s guide to seed certification

Chad Hale Published on 30 September 2013
“Buy certified seed!” It’s a slogan we have all heard from extension agents and other professionals who give advice about purchasing seed. What do those blue certified tags mean, and how important is certified seed to your operation? This article aims to answer those questions.

Seed variability
When a producer is buying seed, more than just some bags of seed are being purchased. The purchase is made with the end result in mind, a beautiful and thick pasture or a highly productive hay field.

Seed is a main ingredient in getting to that end goal. You might say that you are paying for genetic potential when you buy seed. So how can a consumer gauge that potential? Enter seed certification.

How to read a certified analysis tag
As you talk to neighbors and look at university trials to determine which variety is right for you, buying certified seed is your best assurance that the variety will perform to your expectations.

Certified seed has been inspected by a third party to ensure that the genetics are what you expect from that variety, and that rigorous standards of purity and germination are met. Seed certification is the seed industry’s effort at consumer protection, ensuring that when you buy that bag of seed, you have a reasonable chance of getting the performance you expect.

There are many classes of seed on the market. Of any given variety, there can be certified and uncertified seed, as well as common seed and variety-not-stated (VNS) seed.

Of these, only certified seed has been inspected by an impartial third party and verified to meet the high level of purity and germination certified-seed standards require. All seed must adhere to minimum purity and germination standards set forth in federal and state seed laws, but usually the purity standards for certified seed are a bit higher.

Dry matter yields
More important than that may be the performance.

Table 1 compares several red clovers offered for sale in Kentucky.

The top-performing entry, certified Kenland, performed better over three years than did uncertified Kenland or several different entries of common medium red clover.

Why might this happen?
Another part of the certification process specifies that early generation seed, such as foundation class, must be used as the seedstock for certified seed.

Using foundation seed ensures the variety still maintains the characteristics of the original variety developed by the breeder. The number of years that a seed field can be harvested are also limited to avoid genetic drift over time.

In long-lived species like fescue and orchardgrass, varieties can adapt to the environment where they are grown and lose characteristics that may be important.

For example, growing a winter-hardy variety for 20 years in an area that never experiences frost might allow the few plants in a variety that are not winter-hardy to thrive. When the resulting seed is planted in an area with tough winters, winterkill might result.

Seed-certification rules limit the number of harvest years to three to five to avoid such problems. In the clover example above, the uncertified Kenland was significantly different than the certified Kenland.

In the case of red clover, all stands are short-lived, so it is likely that the uncertified Kenland represented here came from a field planted with a lower generation, such as certified or uncertified. If this cycle of planting seed back to generate the next seed crop is repeated enough times, the variety can shift.

From the point of view of the seed grower, it might be advantageous to leave a field in even after the seed crop can no longer be certified. It would still bear the variety name it was planted with, but the seed would be classified as uncertified. It might also simply be called common or VNS.

If a seed grower plants a field with certified seed and then harvests the resulting seed for sale, it won’t qualify as certified, so it will be labeled as uncertified or VNS. There is a chance that uncertified seed will still perform well, and it will likely be a bit cheaper. It is up to the consumer to decide if it is worth the gamble.

We have all experienced times when common or VNS seed performed very well. There are times where the very best genetics are labeled as common or VNS.

If a variety is not selling as expected, or if inventory is piling up, seed companies may label their very best seed as common and reduce the price just to sell it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, VNS seed might be from older varieties that have been surpassed in performance. There is no way to be sure which end of the spectrum you are buying.

This seed may be more economical up-front, but you have to decide if a few dollars per acre up-front are worth a few tons per acre in a year or two. It is a calculated risk.

What if my desired variety isn’t available as certified seed?
As the seed industry matures, some seed companies have their own stringent standards that have replaced certification. Certification does add costs, and some breeders don’t pursue certification for that reason alone.

For instance, much of the alfalfa seed sold is uncertified just because the breeding companies did not want to add the expense of certification, and they feel they can control the quality using their own procedures and standards.

It is possible that the hot new variety you saw across the fence or in the university plots is not available as certified seed. It might still be worth buying and is worth investigating.

The old saying that “people buy from people” applies to the seed industry. While certification is a valuable step to ensure the seed you buy gives the performance you expect, there is no substitute for buying from people you trust.

Work with your seed dealer and extension agent to learn what varieties and companies have been performing well in your area, and if the seed you need is available as certified seed, buy it. If others have had reliable success with uncertified seed of a given variety, you can be pretty sure you will have success too. When it comes to common or VNS seed, realize the chance you are taking, and proceed with caution.  FG



Chad Hale
Past Chair
Cool Season Grass Initiative