Environmentally-Friendly Grass Seed Being Produced in Oregon

Scientists and co-operators with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service are finding that grass seed farmers in Oregon's Willamette Valley can both make a profit and help wildlife to thrive during the rainy fall and winter seasons.

In an article published in the October edition of Agricultural Research, the authors say water runoff from region's grass seed fields during rainy season ends up in seasonal channels where western pond turtles, Chinook salmon, red-side shiners, red-legged frogs and many other aquatic creatures thrive. Nearby trees and brush support even more wildlife.

A diverse group of scientists, led by the ARS Forage Seed and Cereal Research Unit in Corvallis, Ore., is determining which species use the seasonal drainages and how farmers can best manage their fields while preserving natural resources.

“We've found that grass seed farms can provide good habitat for wildlife while producing income for the grower,” said Jeffrey J. Steiner, an agronomist in the Corvallis laboratory. Nearly all the fish found in the channels are native to the Willamette Valley. Scientists believe that's because land use there has changed little over time. Today's grass seed fields are similar to the wet prairie grasslands that covered the region before settlers introduced agriculture.

Among the discoveries is that many fish take shelter in the seasonal drainages. According to Steiner, some even reproduce and find nursery habitats there.

George Mueller, also an agronomist, uses Geographic Information System tools and satellite images to determine which conservation practices are being used in areas thriving with fish and wildlife. Gerald Whittaker, a hydrologist, develops computer programs for calculating economical combinations of conservation practices.

Many of these practices preserve water quality. Plant physiologist Stephen M. Griffith says that no-till planting is one of the practices that can help protect water quality.

“Plowing before another crop is planted disturbs the soil, so nutrients and sediment could end up in the water,” Griffith said. In addition to reducing those losses, it can also be better for the farmer's bottom line. Average no-till planting costs $78 less per acre than planting by conventional tillage. And it often produces higher seed yields.

Mark Mellbye, Oregon State University extension agronomist, works with farmers using conservation practices such as planting wildlife buffers and maintaining drainage and field border vegetation.

According to Steiner, many local farmers expressed interest in conservation and allowed the scientists to conduct research on their fields.

The article, from the October 2005 issue of Agricultural Research magazine, is available at http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/oct05/grass1005.htm.

The above article originally appeared in the October 20, 2005, edition of Divot Mix, an online publication of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (www.gcsaa.org).