Certified choice is way to hassle-free quality
COST alone is a poor reason for choosing between certified and farm-saved seed, says an independent East Anglian merchant.
Other factors, not least the backing of a legal guarantee for certified seed, need taking into account, says James Wallace, a director at Peterborough-based Daltons Seeds. The independent company produces about 10,000t a year of Higher Voluntary Standard combineable crop seed.
There is no denying that even with a 50% royalty, farm-saved seed still has a price edge over certified. But already there are signs that "floating voters" are switching back to the latter, he claims.
With certified single purpose-dressed feed wheat costing £270-300/t depending on variety, there remains a good differential in favour of farm-saving. So why are growers abandoning it?
There are two key reasons, he believes – consumer protection and "hassle". "The certified legislation is there to protect customers. They know they will get seed with a guaranteed minimum germination, uncontaminated with other species, true to variety and free from disease.
"The second thing is that some major farmers dont want to pay for extra labour at the peak times of harvest and autumn cultivation." Neither do they wish to rely on students in such a key job as seed production. Such "hassle" can cost well over £5/t, he maintains.
He dismisses the argument that mobiles can afford to clean grain more aggressively than merchants. The certified system means there are usually more than enough contracted seed crops each season to allow HVS quality to be met – if necessary by increasing screenings, he explains. "We can reject really bad quality crops." Mobiles merely dress to standards individual growers find acceptable, he claims.
Mr Wallace says the apparent benefits of farm-saving come from avoiding delivery charges, part of the royalty, and from a small saving on certification fees. But against these, mobiles usually impose higher processing charges because they tend to deal with smaller batches. Neither can they visit all farms at once, he points out.
He puts the certified/farm-saved split at 70%/30%. "We cant do much to shift the hard core. And in a year like this with not much disease, people are probably looking to save a bit more than normal."
But uncertainty over the royalty issue and a feeling of well-being created by the good harvest and Area Aid means many farm savers have been tempted to revert to certified seed, he says.
"If we get a poor quality harvest next year I expect there will be a further move in this direction." By then the royalty rate on farm-saving will have risen to 60%.
Although overall seed crop quality this year is good, there are several problems, all of which should be taken care of by certification.
Screenings in wheat, at about 15%, are double what they were last season, mainly because the drought prevented the top few grains in ears from filling properly, says Mr Wallace. But combine damage is also to blame.
Apart from visible cracking there is hidden damage, or micro-cracking. "That means there is a potential risk to germination." Tests pre-treatment may give satisfactory results, but chemical dressings may later pull that figure below the certified minimum, he explains.
"We test all crops grown for us by examining them before treatment. But well often test the processed seed depending on the batch." In Scotland post-treatment germination tests are standard practice, he notes.
Cracking in winter and spring beans is widespread. "We havent any germination results yet, but its likely that a number of seed crops will be lost." Other sources suggest germination rates could be down to 70%. The minimum standard is 85%. That raises the possibility of the trade having to apply to Brussels through MAFF for a derogation to use a lower figure, he says. "We had to do it a few years ago for spring beans."
"Everybody sells quality, but its whats supplied that counts." As a wholesaler he says he was recently obliged to withdraw a batch of oilseed rape found to have been over-dressed with chemical. "That shows that the seed trade acts very responsibly."
There will always be some merchants, both large and small, who sell cheaper material of "indifferent quality", Mr Wallace admits. The key for growers is to get to know the ones they can rely on for good quality and service. *