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Episode 4

The State of Seed

On this episode of the Around the Turf Scene Podcast, Rusty Stachlewitz is in the hot seat for a change. Beth Berry picks his brain on all things grass seed, including production, supply, and coated seed technology. Tune in to hear the “professor of seed” share recommendations for making the most of the limited seed supply this year. This podcast was originally recorded for Turf’s Up Radio and repurposed for the Around the Turf Scene Podcast.

About our guests:
Rusty Stachlewitz is the seed product manager at Advanced Turf Solutions. Rusty received his bachelor of science in crop and soil science from Michigan State University with an emphasis in turfgrass management. He has been a golf course superintendent and general manager in the industry. He’s also been the turfgrass department head of two colleges and the program director of The Lawn Institute.

About our host:
Beth Berry is the vice president of turf and ornamental sales at Advanced Turf Solutions. Previously, she was the vice president of growth and alliance for Real Green software, where she managed enterprise accounts and strategic partnerships for the green industry software company. Prior to Real Green, Beth was the director of customer service for Scotts Miracle-Gro. She currently hosts the show “Ahead of the Curb” on Turf’s Up Radio.

Rusty Stachlewitz  00:14
This podcast was originally recorded for Turf’s Up Radio and repurposed for Around the Turf Scene Podcast.

Beth Berry 00:22
My guest today, folks—I’m Beth Berry, I’m Ahead of the Curb, I’m vice president of turf and ornamental at Advanced Turf Solutions. You are joining us on Turf’s Up Radio. Your industry. Your station. I have ATS legend Rusty Stachlewitz. When I joined ATS, I didn’t know he was a legend. But I’ve been in his peanut gallery for a few months now as we’ve traveled around to winter ed. He knows all the things and more on seed. I mean, he’s the doctor of seed, the professor of seed. I’m going to have to come up with something really good, but also, he’s a fantastic musician. So on my very first day at ATS, we have this amazing event at the Lucas Estate in Carmel, Indiana, and Rusty’s singing. And I’m like, “These are our people? Like, they know all of this, and they’re talented too.” So, Rusty, thanks for joining me today and sharing with the Turf’s Up audience everything you know and more about seed. And that’s just my intro, but in case folks are joining us that don’t know who you are (shame on you), but give us a little bio. What’s the elevator pitch?

Rusty Stachlewitz  01:30
Oh, the elevator pitch for me is very long, so I’ll keep it short as I can. I’ve got a degree in turf management from Michigan State, I started my career managing golf courses from an assistant superintendent to superintendent and then general manager. From there, I moved on to run two different turfgrass management programs at junior colleges, one out in South Dakota at Southeast Technical University, and the other one at Kishwaukee College in Illinois. And from there, I worked for The Lawn Institute, which is a nonprofit that educates homeowners and municipalities about the value of turfgrass. And from that, I made my way to ATS, and I’ve been here in some capacity for 13 years now. I’m now the seed product manager which means that I am the person responsible for getting everything in our pretty green bags. So I work with our seed partners out West to make sure we have the best seed possible, travel out there a few times a year to check on production, check on research, all those sorts of things. But that is my elevator pitch.

Beth Berry 02:41
Well, you have fantastic partners. I’m in a little bit of a withdrawal because we were traveling together with Kelly Lynch from Pure Seed and some of the other folks that sponsor our events, and we were having so much fun every week. And now it’s just back to the grind without all you guys.

Rusty Stachlewitz  02:58
Yeah, it’s a major letdown. But Kelly from Pure Seed was huge for us this winter with going out to talk with our customers. We also work with Mountain View Seeds and Barenbrug, our other two partners.

Beth Berry 03:11
Well, it was probably four weeks into my tenure at ATS I caught a little bit of your presentation last August, and I asked Jessica for the PowerPoint. And I’m going through educating myself on all of our proprietary coatings, and we’re going to talk about all of that. But I was blown away and, honestly, a bit embarrassed that I’ve been in this industry for three decades and I knew so little about the state of the industry with seed based on your presentation. I was almost embarrassed to keep asking you questions because I should have known this. You might have heard of ScottsMiracle-Gro. I was there for 16 years. We had seed, we had scientists on every corner, and I had absolutely no idea what seed—just the background and the very small region of the country where it comes from, and that we all have all of our eggs in one basket, and just all of the things. To start with, if we want to know what’s going on right now, what happened that started to change the way the industry, the seed industry, and how T&O uses it in the last couple of years, what’s been going on?

Rusty Stachlewitz  04:27
There’s a bunch of factors. I’ll keep it as easy as I can. But let’s back up a second to the things you didn’t know. Firstly, I wouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed you don’t know that. There are people like me that are supposed to know those things, and you’re not supposed to worry about them. It’s the same thing as you’re supposed to show up at the gas pump, and gas is supposed to come out.

Rusty Stachlewitz  04:47
And so, you know, we all have our roles here. But the big thing that people don’t understand is 85% to 90% of our grass seed comes from one geographic location out in a valley called the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

Beth Berry 04:47
Say that again. Willamette?

Beth Berry 04:47
That’s true.

Rusty Stachlewitz  05:07
The Willamette Valley. And so that is out in the state of Oregon and extends from just south of Portland to just north of Eugene. And so it’s about 120 miles from north to south and, depending on where you are, 20 or 25 miles across. It’s not a very big area, but they grow the vast majority of the grass seed that the world uses.

Beth Berry 05:31
The world—not ATS, not the US, the world.

Rusty Stachlewitz  05:36
The world. So you’ve got to put that in perspective. So anything that happens out there, climatologically or with the recent weather events or any of those things is going to drastically impact what we’re getting for grass seed. Additionally, that area is not only great for growing grass seeds. It’s really great for growing other crops. And crop that competes with grass seed right now in a big way are hazelnuts, which, you know, if you’re eating Nutella, then that’s hazelnuts. It’s a very popular product right now. But that’s a 30-year crop. When you put that in the ground, those are trees. They have to grow up like an orchard, and so we lose that ground. Additionally, blueberries are being grown in that same area and a bunch of other crops. But those are two main competitors. So we’re competing for space out there. What happens is the seed companies pay farmers to grow their seed. Well, they have to pay them a competitive price, or they’ll get paid by some other company to grow blueberries or hazelnuts. So that’s kind of the first thing is that we’re working with a limited resource in land in the right area. And we’re in a competition spiral with a couple of other crops right now.

Beth Berry 07:01
And has it always been that way? I assume that in the last 50 years, that’s where grass seed’s come from or were there are other areas of the world?

Rusty Stachlewitz  07:08
So since about the mid-60’s, that’s where most of our grass seed has come from. Bluegrass, tall fescue used to be produced in Missouri and Kansas, the Kansas City market into Kansas, over into Oklahoma. But they realized they could just produce a way better crop out in Oregon that produced way more seeds per acre. And so that’s just an economical way to do it. So they moved everything out there. There’s also a bunch of infrastructures that people don’t think about that goes along with seed production that’s got to be, you know, not only harvested but then it gets clean. There are only so many cleaners, and they’re expensive. And then the packaging lines and things like that are also expensive. So they kind of, over the years, but all the infrastructure as well as all the land to grow these products out in Oregon. We’re seeing a little bit of shift into Washington state, into southern British Columbia. We also have some grass growing in Minnesota and southern Manitoba, so people are trying to diversify a little bit.

Beth Berry 08:23
Insane. A capitalist like myself should join forces with someone who wants to begin planting it in northern Michigan or somewhere else where they grow grapes. But the way you’ve described the Willamette Valley, it is like essentially the most perfect environmental area to grow this.

Rusty Stachlewitz  08:43
It is, it is. It has the perfect amount of rainfall at the perfect time, typically. And so it works out great. And a little more temperate than northern Michigan, so you don’t have the intense cold spells that you would have. And that’s one of the problems with growing in some of these other areas is it gets intensely cold. And we don’t have that in the in the Valley region out in Oregon. It’s just a very temperate, very moderate temperature, typically. That kind of goes into where we’re at right now with a short seed supply, because things are happening that aren’t typical.

Beth Berry 09:19
Well, let’s talk about one of those before we take our break: demand. When did that start to really kick into gear?

Rusty Stachlewitz  09:27
Oddly enough, demand ramped up with COVID lockdowns. As soon as we were told we couldn’t leave our houses, people got super interested in their lawn. Also, you know, some of their activities were curtailed for being able to go out and play sports and do things like that and travel. They had more money, so people pumped it into their lawn. That meant more grass seed purchases out at the big-box stores, but also people subscribing to, you know, home lawn maintenance programs with T&O operators. And that just meant more seed going out the door. So that was the beginning of it.

Beth Berry  10:09
And that was true for a lot of the industry. But have we seen that demand continue since, say, spring of 2020?

Rusty Stachlewitz 10:17
Yeah, oddly enough. We thought the demand would drop off, and we haven’t. And I’m hoping that, you know, a lot of your listeners here are seeing the same thing that their demand hasn’t been dropping off. It seems that once people start to get a lawn service, or start to make their lawn look better on their own, then they just keep doing it. So we’re not seeing a decrease in that demand. And then, obviously, sports opened back up and golf opened back up, and they’re big drivers of the seed industry as well.

Beth Berry  10:48
That is insane. We’re going to talk about what the harvest was like, some of the proprietary coatings that Advanced Turf offers, and why you’re going to get more—I like to say we get our customers more mileage. Like, the cost is the cost. But we can get you more miles per gallon, so to speak, in layman’s terms, with some of the very cool technologies you’ve led us towards which have also just blown my mind. And I’ve been able to see it firsthand. But we’re going to take a quick break from our sponsors here and we’ll come back and talk about the state of the crop and some of that other cool stuff. I’ll be right back with my guest Rusty Stachlewitz. I’m Beth Berry. I’m Ahead of the Curb on Turf’s Up Radio. Your industry. Your station.

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Beth Berry 12:09
Let’s talk about—so you’ve defined the very small agronomic area of the country which, as I’ve said to you, if there were a significant weather event, we’d all be screwed on grass seed. So maybe everyone should start hoarding it. But let’s talk about crops the last couple of years. What went on with the actual crops themselves?

Rusty Stachlewitz 12:31
Yeah, so in the fall—or, we call it fall, but grass seed gets harvested in July, August, and early September out in Oregon. And in 2020, in that timeframe, the harvest was poor. So we got less seed than we thought we would, which drove prices a little bit higher. Also, remember the high demand going on. And then we got to last year for harvest in 2021, and it was just miserable. We got, across the board, about 50% of the grass seed we expected, and that varied by species. Tall fescue came in better than ryegrass, and ryegrass came in better than fine fescue. But, across the board, we averaged about 50% of what we expected. So that is the major reason why prices have increased so much is supply and demand. Supply is still high—I’m sorry, demand is still high. Supply is lower and lower. And so prices have to go up. Plus, those farmers need compensated for the acreage they use. So if they only got half the grass seed off, then it still cost them just as much to produce it. So they had to double their price or close to.

Beth Berry 13:43
And the variables about why it was so bad—like, I’d never thought about voles, slugs, armyworms actually cannibalizing the seed harvest.

Rusty Stachlewitz 13:55
Yeah, there’s all kinds of different issues that can come up for seed growers, just like everybody else growing turfgrass. And pests are a big part of it. We used to be able to burn the fields out in Oregon in between cycles. And when you burn the fields, you burned out a lot of weeds, and you also burned out a lot of pests and pests that we don’t think about here as being hugely damaging. Voles are a big one, a little mouse-like creature that actually feeds on the seed stock. And so they get in those fields and they just keep reproducing, and it’s very difficult to get them out now. They’ve curtailed the amount of baiting we’re allowed to do for voles to eliminate them, obviously have curtailed the fire that usually runs them off. And then the same thing, there’s slugs. It’s a very moist condition out there for a lot of the year. And slugs are a big, big pest, and they get on a plant and just eat it down to the ground. It’s just amazing to me the damage a slug can do as well. So those were big factors. And then we had some epic weather events as well this past summer out in Portland and south of Portland. In the end of June, when grass seed is trying to fertilize itself to make the seeds viable, the temperature jumped up to 120 degrees. And so in that timeframe, at the end of June, when the plant should be throwing pollen and trying to receive pollen to fertilize seed, it was just trying to survive. You know, Portland’s 110-plus for three straight days. Further south, 115 degrees-plus for three straight days. And that really is probably the nail in the coffin for what reduced the yield so much.

Beth Berry 15:52
Yeah, you’ve talked about ice storms and 116 degree temperatures in the same segment here. Like, how does that even. . . ?

Rusty Stachlewitz 16:02
Yeah, so grass seed is harvested once a year, like other crops that we’re used to—you know, corn, soybeans, depending on where you live, cotton—you know, it gets harvested once a year. Unlike those crops, it gets left in for two to five years in the field. And over the previous two winters as well, they’ve had ice storms. The one in the winter of 2021 was an inch of ice. It shut down facilities for up to two weeks because they didn’t have power. So that also affects the supply throughout the whole winter. Grass seed companies are bagging products for us, our competitors, big-box stores, whoever. And if you take out 10 to 14 days of production that also sets you behind. That goes hand in hand with another event that happened out in Oregon, which was some wildfires. And the wildfires, you know, didn’t directly affect the seed fields so much, but they also affected the harvest and bagging of products because the air quality got so bad that OSHA shut down some of the seed bagging facilities, because it wasn’t safe for workers. Just so much smog, basically, in the air from those fires.

Beth Berry 17:24
That’s insane. And then you talked about the wet, moist valley. I’m no agronomists, but I know what comes along with that. Disease, right?

Rusty Stachlewitz 17:32
Right, right. And so there’s, you know, a handful of diseases that are a big deal for grass seed production. Stem rust is a big one, all seed production. Ergot is a problem. And, you know, when you have epic weather conditions, from heat to drought to wetness to ice, all those things start to come into play. And so we also had some disease issues as well.

Beth Berry 17:59
It is a crazy world in which we live. You never even mentioned COVID one time, other than the demand. So all of these factors were just kind of the perfect storm, if you will, to create this crop that was a little bit lackluster in terms of what it produced. But what about the quality? Did it suffer, or is what we’re getting out of it still very high quality?

Rusty Stachlewitz 18:23
No, because of the low production, because of the—honestly, the increase in price of labor, increase in price of fuel, all those sorts of things, the quality is also going to be poor. So you’re going to end up, because of the bad fertilization in the end of June, you’re going to end up with a lower germination percentage than we typically see, which is fine. If we know that, it’ll be able to tag. It’ll be evident for everybody. The other thing that happens is, because of those high temperatures, people weren’t able to get out in the field at times they needed to to remove weeds. Because of the high labor costs, a lot of that work is done by by hand with a hoe or by hand with a backpack sprayer, and physically finding the staff and labor to go out and remove weeds from the field was difficult. So on those tags from last fall’s crop, you’re going to see a little more weed seed, a little more what we call “other crop,” which means other turfgrasses that aren’t the species we were trying to grow that got in that bag as well. You can expect the quality to be a little lesser this year. And honestly, as we move forward, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain that quality and the purity of the seed a) because of the burning, b) because of a reduction in the chemicals we can use and the amount times we can use them, and c) because of the labor issues. I mean, I was out in Oregon in June and there are—you know, we complain about the price of labor—but there were fast-food restaurants out there hiring at $22.50 an hour. And so, you know, if you can sit or stand in an air conditioned restaurant and work, that sounds a lot better than being out in hundred-degree day walking a grass seed field. So it gets hard to have a competitive wage.

Beth Berry 20:20
And, as we know, all of this has driven prices up to an all-time high. We see that across the board. I haven’t heard of anything that we supply at Advanced Turf we’ve said, “Oh, you know what, this is down 30% this year. You should stock up.” But, like, as a percent, how much higher would you say seed is to buy for turf and ornamental owners this year?

Rusty Stachlewitz 20:46
The number—it depends on a few things once again—but the prices are 80% higher to 100% higher, depending on the species and the blend that you’re using. So it’s a huge impact on everyone’s bottom line. And so you really got to look at how you spend your seed dollars, and how you charge your customers for that same service,

Beth Berry 21:12
That’s a key right there. How you charge your customers is very important. And so you’ve given us a history lesson on seed, which I find fascinating. And if you would like to start a seed farm with me in Michigan, I’m open to it. Or anyone on Turf’s Up Radio, if you want to belly up to the bar, I still think that’s good option. And you’ve given us a really cool insight into what’s happened the last couple of years. And none of that’s particularly exciting, Rusty, but what I learned from traveling to these winter ed events the last few months is that you are the guy with all the solutions. So you have options for how to manage the current situation. Advanced Turf has proprietary seed, and you’re going to talk about some of the very cool chemistries and innovations that we have that really no one else has that is going to make the year better for everyone. So we’re excited to hear the good part. Thank you for the history lesson. We now understand, all depressing, and when we come back after this break, it’s going to be filled with good news. I’m Beth Berry, I am your host on Ahead of the Curb, Turf’s Up Radio. Your industry. Your station. Today’s guest—do not go away because now we’re getting to the good part: how to solve this problem—Rusty Stachlewitz. He is our product manager for seed at Advanced Turf Solutions. And we’ll be back after a word from our sponsors.

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Beth Berry 23:16
I put in a lot of work to figure out how to come back from that segment of doom and gloom on why the state of the union was such, and you did a fantastic job educating us there. And now we’re going to get to my favorite part, which is the solution segment of the show. You’re going to tell us something good. And you mentioned this before the break that you’ve got to charge the customers the right amount. Seed as a service in a turf and ornamental company has traditionally been one of the highest calorie revenue add-ons that you can provide a customer. And we know it increases the density, right? We know that it will crowd out the crabgrass. We know that it will crowd out the weeds. We know that customers retain longer when they have that thick, dense turf. So we know it’s going to cost more for fuel, labor, seed, the equipment to put the seed down. So you’re going to have to charge your customers more and take a quick look at your P&L to figure out what that is in whole. But you are the guy with all the solutions. What are our options for maximizing the state of the union right now?

Rusty Stachlewitz 24:25
You’ve really got four different options, as I see it. We’ll walk through them all, but the first one is to use less seed. I mean, it sounds crazy, but what I’ve noticed traveling around the country is that lots of times, especially for fall overseeding, people just use too much speed. The other thing I can tell you is that, regardless of what you tell your staff to go do, when you set up their spreader, oftentimes they will open them up a little bit and put down more seed so they don’t have to do a callback, don’t have to hear about having to do a callback. And so they’re doing a little more, in some cases. So we will look at that real quick here. You know, I’m just going to go through a few species here. So like tall fescue, if you’re doing a new project, new seeding for a lawn, look at six to eight pounds per thousand. Some people will go up to 10. I’m okay with that, but I’ve got customers that are doing 15 pounds per thousand square feet of tall fescue, and it’s just wasteful. It ends up having too much competition out there in the wild. And then if you’re doing a fall overseeding with tall fescue, look at cutting that number in half. So from six to eight down to three to four. Perennial ryegrass, I’m at three to four pounds per thousand for a new lawn, and then two to three pounds per thousand for overseeding. And Kentucky bluegrass, I’m at one to two pounds for a new lawn per thousand square feet, and then half that once again, so half a pound to two pounds for an overseeding. If you’re using a combination of some of those products, then just kind of extrapolate from those numbers as to where you need to be. One of the biggest mistakes I see is just people seeding at too heavy of a rate, especially for an initial seeding. And what that does is it creates overcompetition. There’s only so much availability of nutrients in that soil, there’s only so much moisture. And if you have too many seedlings competing for those resources, they all end up weaker.

Beth Berry 24:25
So you actually can put down too much seed?

Rusty Stachlewitz 26:32
You actually can put down too much seed.

Rusty Stachlewitz 26:37
And that’s one of the things that, you know, it pains me as a guy whose job it is to sell seed to tell you that. But agronomically, putting down the right amount makes it go a lot further. I deal with a lot of sod farms, and you got to think these people are trying to harvest that grass within eight to 12 months, up to 14 months. They don’t put down extra seed. They put down less in a lot of cases because it makes those plants stronger with less competition. And so you need to think kind of like a sod grower. How do I make this as good and strong as possible with the least amount of input and seed? And so that is the first big thing is to look at your seeding rates for everything to make sure you’re not using too much.

Beth Berry 26:37

Beth Berry 27:37
How do those rates compare to when you were in school at Michigan State? Has it stayed pretty much the same?

Rusty Stachlewitz 27:44
It’s stayed pretty much the same. It’s crazy. The seeding rates haven’t changed, but seed has. I mean, I’m getting to be a gray-haired man, and so I’ve seen lots of advances in the last 30 years of being in this profession. And 30 years ago, there were way less seeds per pound. Now with a lot of our breeding, the genetics have got so much better. We’ve bred smaller, dwarfer plants. Well, those smaller, dwarfer plants also have smaller, dwarfer seed. And so that means smaller seeds, you have more per pound. So if you’re putting out the same poundage as you were 30 years ago, you’re putting out way more seed by seed count between then and now. And it’s kind of a hard concept to explain over the radio here. But if you think about it for a second, you know, like, Kentucky bluegrass 30 years ago would have had 1.4 million seeds per pound. And now we’re at 2.2 million seeds per pound. So it’s a 800,000 seed per pound difference from then till now. And if you’re measuring everything out in how many pounds you’re putting out per thousand, you’re putting out a lot more grass seed than you were 30 years ago.

Beth Berry 29:09
That’s crazy. That is crazy. And then you used a phrase that’s practically sacrilege, my friend, at one of our last events in Beloit, Wisconsin. You could use a different species this year.

Rusty Stachlewitz 29:24
Yeah, you could use a different species. Once again, there’s been a lot of genetic advancements. When I started this 30 years ago, you would never ever seed tall fescue up into northern Indiana, northern Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, those areas because it was not our best option. It didn’t look very good. It would die every few winters. But there’s been a ton of advances, especially in tall fescue, where now, overwintering is not an issue. Appearance is fantastic. It looks very much like a Kentucky bluegrass. And so it is a great option into areas where it normally wasn’t. Additionally, the breeding on it’s got so much better that areas in the South that, you know, typically, years ago, we were looking at putting zoysia in, or even Bermuda, are now way better served by a tall fescue that is very drought tolerant using very little water, stays green throughout the whole year in those instances. And so putting some thought into what you’re actually doing, from a turfgrass selection standpoint could help. Additionally, with the price increases, you know, a lot of companies use different mixtures of seeds. And they may have tall fescue and ryegrass or bluegrass and ryegrass that they use for their new establishment that they use for their overseeding. We’ve always just thrown ryegrass in because it comes up fast and it’s cheap.

Beth Berry 31:00

Rusty Stachlewitz 31:00
And so the homeowner looks at it and goes, “Yep, this is great.” It’s growing in five days.

Beth Berry 31:06
And then when it’s not perfect, we say, “Well, it takes a season or two to really blend.” But many T&O business owners say, “I’m just going to go with the perennial rye because it’s going to get the job done.”

Rusty Stachlewitz 31:17
Right. And now, with the price increases and the different seeding rates that we use for the different species, you’re probably better off looking at using tall fescue if it’s the better long-term solution or using straight Kentucky bluegrass if it’s the better solution long term, because there aren’t a lot of places in the United States where ryegrass, perennial ryegrass, is our best long-term solution for a lawn.

Beth Berry 31:46

Rusty Stachlewitz 31:46
And so, I mean, if you’re in one of those areas in a coastal, northern coastal area, that’s great. But in most of the rest of the country, we need to look at reducing that perennial ryegrass or eliminating it to a) reduce cost, and b) give our customers a better quality product in the long run. I think that’s something that you can really build off of from year to year.

Beth Berry 32:11
That makes so much sense. So we’re going to cover one more topic before our last break. And then when we come back, we’re going to spend all the time on the really cool coatings. But soil-to-seed contact and whether or not you should use a better process—tell us about that.

Rusty Stachlewitz 32:29
Yeah. Once again, I traveled around all winter and talked to a lot of different people. And seed gets put in the ground in a lot of different ways. And with the cost of seed, we need to make sure that we are doing all we can to get seed-to-soil contact. And if you look at any literature on turfgrass establishment, starting a lawn, in the first two sentences they’ll talk about seed-to-soil contact. When that seed emerges, when that plant emerges from the seed, it needs to be able to get to the soil. And so I’m a big fan of slit seeding, even for fall overseeding. I’m a big fan of aerification and then seeding so that you can get some of that seed down into the canopy and down into the soil. If you can’t do those things—it’s a big project, you don’t have the equipment, you need something done faster—then rotary spread that seed out on top of the soil and then cover it with something or drag that area to get some soil on top of the seed to get some more soil-to-seed contact. The big problem I see is with hydroseeders. Hydroseeders go out, they put the seed right in the slurry, they shoot it out onto the soil. And they usually get a great result, or it looks like a great result, but a lot of that grass seed is trapped up in that mulch, and it germinates and the root can never get to the soil and dies off. And so, to compensate for this, a lot of hydroseeders are putting too much seed in that tank, knowing a lot of it’s going to die off. So the fix for that is to hydromulch. Don’t put the seed in the mulch product in your tank. Go out, rotary spread it onto the soil, and then mulch over top of it. It adds about a man-hour per acre, from what I’ve been told, to do that. But your results end up way better and you can use way less seed.

Beth Berry 34:29
Do you know how much a service call costs? I’d take one hour per man-acre over the callbacks. And a service callback on seed that didn’t germinate—that’s a long haul to correct.

Rusty Stachlewitz 34:44
It’s a very expensive callback from all aspects of it—not just getting the person out there, but then having to correct it. So doing all you can on the front end is going to end up saving you money.

Beth Berry 34:54

Rusty Stachlewitz 34:54
The other thing that I’ve been preaching is, you know, a lot of people go out and get the best seed they can, they do a really good job of getting it down on the soil or in the ground, and then they use bales of straw to cover it up to hold moisture in. And you got to think about where those bales of straw are coming from. They’re coming from a field that probably wasn’t sprayed for weeds. They’re not fumigated to kill any seed that’s alive. And so you end up inadvertently putting down a lot of weeds. And I’m not talking about straw blankets—those have been treated—but bales of straw. If people are using bales of straw, they should really reconsider for fine turfgrass areas because you’re just introducing more weed seed.

Beth Berry 35:43
Oh, I’ve seen that happen. When we come back after this break, we’re going to talk about the most innovated coated seed I’ve ever heard of in three decades that gets you more miles per gallon on seed this year. I’m Beth Berry. I am your host of Ahead of the Curb, Turf’s Up Radio. Your industry. Your station. And we’re going to be right back with seed doctor, Rusty Stachlewitz. And he’s going to preach some more after a word from our sponsors.

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Beth Berry 36:49
I’ve got my guest Rusty Stachlewitz. He’s the seed professor at Advanced Turf Solutions. I’m Beth Berry, Ahead of the Curb. Rusty, you have just blown us away today. The comments I’m getting are unbelievable. You’re going to have to come back for part two, because now we’re down to like 10 minutes for you to give us all the goods on coating and how this has really revolutionized grass seed for turf and ornamental owners. Let it happen.

Rusty Stachlewitz 37:18
Well, yeah, I get the best for last, right? So we’re ready to go. So Advanced Turf Solutions is really big into coated grass. We’ve been selling coated grass seed for 13 years. And four years ago, we developed our own proprietary coating that we call XCD. And the basic premise of any high-quality coated seed is to hold moisture against that seed. So it’s got a water-absorbent technology in that coating. Think of that coating like a candy shell on an M&M. But this candy shell holds moisture. And so that’s the most important thing is when you do get rain, you do irrigate, then that product turns into a gelatin and holds against that seed. So there’s always moisture there instead of going through cycles of wet-dry and wet-dry, which can make seed become unviable and not germinate out in the wild. So that’s the biggest component of it. We also put in a fungicide, metalaxyl, which helps with damping off and pythium diseases. It also encourages a little bit of vigor out of that seedling when it comes out of the coating. And then we have our own proprietary nutrient support package in that seed coating as well that increases the amount of seeds that germinate, that speeds up germination, that increases the seedling survival of that grass seed because once that seedling comes out of that seed, that coating starts to fall off. The coating then goes into the soil, and a lot of the things in that coating are goodies we put in there for the plant after it germinates. There’s amino acid, there’s microbiology for the roots, there’s a full nutrient package in there that allows that seedling to then thrive where it’s at. So there’s a couple of different aspects to why we put that coating on. The thing you can know is we use a 50% coating. And that means you buy a 50-pound bag of grass seeds from us, you’ll get 25 pounds of seed, 25 pounds of coating in that coated grass seed bag. We do not change the seeding rate at all. So if you’re used to going out with seven pounds per thousand of tall fescue, we’re going to go out with seven pounds of coated tall fescue per thousand. We are actually putting out half as much seed. However, so much more will germinate and so much more will survive that we don’t want to put out more than that because of the overcompetition aspects we talked about earlier, and so it allows us to take that small grass seed crop and make it go twice as far with no reduction in the stand of turf for you or your customers and actually increase performance in a lot of cases. We’ve got a bunch of studies that we’ve done before we released our coating that show we can germinate grass seed faster. So that means you don’t need to have that ryegrass in there for that quick germination.

Beth Berry 40:50

Rusty Stachlewitz 40:51
We’re speeding up that germination on tall fescue by as much as six days over what we see with uncoated product. And so you get a big jump on establishment. You get a big jump on that grass and that lawn looking better for the customer. And it’s a huge value-added thing. Additionally, the coating itself is cheaper than the grass seed is.

Beth Berry 41:23
I just got—I have three questions for you from listeners. That’s the first one I got: “Sounds like it’s going to cost me a lot more.”

Rusty Stachlewitz 41:30
Right. So the coated seed is actually cheaper. So you’re going to use the same amount, and you’re going to pay less per pound. And so, you know, from a cost savings perspective, it makes perfect sense. The other thing that is interesting is that we chose a bright green color. For anyone who’s seen our Steel Green machines, that’s the same color as the Steel Green tanks. Well, that bright green color also allows your employees to see it when they’re putting it out. It allows your customers to see it when it’s on the ground. And I’ve been told that a lot of customers in these areas where they’re overseeding get callbacks about the overseeding, meaning, “I didn’t see any grass seed down there, and you charged me for it.” With this, it’s bright green. If they look at all, they’re going to see it. And so that’s another huge component. It also reduces the tendency of your employees to crank open that seeder or spreader and put out more, because they can see it.

Beth Berry 42:39
Yeah, they see it actually happening. And, to your point, the customers—I used to manage inbound call centers for Scotts LawnService. We had 42 call centers, 20,000 inbound calls a day. And the number one FAQ after seeding is, “I can’t see it.” Which is very common, right? So you answered one question. I got two more questions we got to cover here. One, do you still need starter fertilizer with it? And then the next question that we had is shelf life of opened and unopened grass seed.

Rusty Stachlewitz 43:19
Got it. So let’s do the shelf life one first.

Beth Berry 43:23
And, by the way, I got us extra time today because our sponsors are paying more. So don’t feel like you have to answer these in three minutes.

Rusty Stachlewitz 43:31
All right, all right. So the open bag, the seed longevity question. So seed actually gets a better germination percentage, typically, after one year in the bag.

Beth Berry 44:49

Rusty Stachlewitz 43:50
And whether it’s open or closed, those bags are designed to be breathable. So whether the bag is opened or closed has no impact on germination, as long as it’s stored somewhere without huge high-temperature swings. I mean, you don’t want it to get above 125 degrees, which sounds crazy, but some people put seed in containers. And those containers can get really hot in the summer if the sun hits them. And so just be conscious of that. And so they don’t have to be climate controlled, but just can’t get super hot. But the germination percentage typically goes up after one year. And then we see about a 3% to 5% reduction in germination every year after that. And so I tell people, you know, four to five years, you’re still going to get a good percentage of that grass seed to come up. It’s not going to be the same as the label, but you get a lot to come up with. The coating has zero impact on any of those factors. The shelf life stays the same. The decrease in germination percentage over time stays the same. All of those things roll into it and stay exactly the same.

Beth Berry 45:11
Interesting. So that’s very exciting. You could buy up now, as long as you had somewhere to keep it that was appropriate, and it’s actually going to get better in a year. I don’t really know of any other products that do that. What about the question regarding if it’s coated with all the benefits you talked about. Do you still need to apply a starter fertilizer?

Rusty Stachlewitz 45:32
Yeah, you still want to do what’s agronomically best for that stand of grass and that lawn, so you need to put a starter fertilizer out. It is not as imperative because there are some nutrients on that seed coating. But still, put a starter out there so there’s something else for that plant to feed off of once it gets beyond where the coating is and can get some nutrients.

Beth Berry 45:59
Interesting. What about, here we’re going to shut down some of these former myths. Birds and mice are going to go out there and eat the seed we put down— is that still true?

Rusty Stachlewitz 46:11
Well, it’s not as true with the coating. Obviously, our color’s bright green. It doesn’t look like anything that exists in nature. And so the birds and mice are not attracted to it. We’ve had a few bags that have been broken into in storage of the coated seed, but mice do not eat very much of it. The water-absorbant product is extremely dry in the bag. I got to imagine it’s very unpalatable. I’ve not tried to eat it, but I got to imagine it’s not good, probably feels bad once it gets into their stomach. And so that’s another side benefit that we have of the coating.

Beth Berry 46:51
Spring or fall? Should the customer be seeding in spring or fall, and what are the implications?

Rusty Stachlewitz 46:59
Your best options for a quick establishment, best establishment is fall. And fall is always going to be the best time to seed. The decrease in daytime temperature, the decrease in day length, all those things help the seed germinate and help it survive. If you go out in the spring, you need to get the grass established well before the heat and drought of summer. And so you just have to maybe have a little more input. Additionally, you’re going to have some additional weed concerns in the spring with all the summer annuals that come up: goosegrass and crabgrass and those sorts of things that you’re going to be competing with. So just be conscious of that. It can be done. And, you know, anything can be done. But if you go out with the spring seeding, just expect more weed competition. You may have to use mesotrione or something like that to decrease the weed competition in the spring.

Beth Berry 48:02
What about with a pre-emergent?

Rusty Stachlewitz 48:05
Well, with a pre-emergent, you’re going to have to wait until that grass seed comes up before you put the pre-emergent down because prodiamine and dithiopyr are going to stop that cool-season grass seed from germinating. So if you put down a pre-emergent and then try and seed over it, you’re not going to have good results. The design of that pre-emergent is to stop things from emerging, and it goes the same with grass seed. The only consideration for that is, once again, mesotrione or siduron. Those are two products that you could seed into but are very costly for a wide scale. But if you have somebody who needs a project done with a new lawn in the spring, we can certainly get it done.

Beth Berry 48:51
I’ve got a note from the Beloit event: larger buffer between watering. What does that mean?

Rusty Stachlewitz 48:59
Yeah, so that coating is holding moisture against the seed. And so we go out and we put a lawn in for a customer and we tell them to irrigate it, you know, twice a day, three times a day, whatever the recommendation is. I know from experience that customer doesn’t do that. That customer goes out there maybe irrigates a couple of days in a row twice a day and then once a day and then every other day, and then they get discouraged because nothing’s coming up. With the coating on there, that coating retains enough moisture that it keeps that seed moist throughout that stretch where they’re only out there once a day or once every other day. And you’ll actually get germination. You’ll actually get that seed to come up and then, once again, in my experience, once the customer sees something growing, they get way more engaged. And so they’re more willing to go out there and irrigate again.

Beth Berry 49:54
Oh, yeah.

Rusty Stachlewitz 49:55
That’s what I meant by larger buffering between watering, meaning you can go a longer duration between watering. We’ve also got a few customers that have a contract until first mowing. They go out and use a water truck to irrigate those areas, and it decreases the number of times they have to go out and do that work as well.

Beth Berry 50:17
Crazy. Okay, I wrote down a phrase from one of your PowerPoint slides that I’ve never heard used in turf and ornamental, let alone seed: greater ballistics. What did you mean by that phrase?

Rusty Stachlewitz 50:31
Greater ballistics. So with the coating, the coating is dense and heavy. And so if you’re doing fall overseeding with a rotary spreader, then that seed with the coating throws further. It throws more consistently. And so you can get through a yard quicker. You can throw it into a little bit of a breeze without a problem. So it’ll get you more viable working days as well.

Beth Berry 50:58
That’s insane. So the high efficiency, the innovation, mind blowing to me in a year where the profit margin is going, you’re going to have to work every day if you’re a business owner or manager to protect that profit margin. And sometimes I’ll have conversations where it’s, “Where can I cut out product?” And in some cases, you can. You can modify your program to save money. And we’re all about that. And there’s a lot of folks at ATS that do that. But when I was at ScottsMiracle-Gro, we fanatically tracked callbacks, callbacks percentage. If you had two or more callbacks in a year for weeds, you were twice as likely to cancel. And so we were very proactive about reducing and eliminating callbacks. And we talked a little bit about what it cost for a callback and seed. You’re not going to fix that, like you can weed control, in a pretty quick manner if you have to go back for that. So talk about a year where it is so important to do it right the first time and invest in the correct equipment, the correct seed that’s coated. And don’t forget to just overcommunicate with the customers because I can’t tell you how many times, Rusty, they thought, “Well, it rained one time the week after you did that.” Yeah, here are the horticultural guidelines we left behind. We have to partner with you. So you’ve got to communicate what you need the customer to do as well.

Rusty Stachlewitz 52:32
For sure, for sure. And the coating eliminates a lot of the variables in that or at least reduces them.

Beth Berry 52:41
Amazing. Any last words on seed? Anything that’s happening, any breaking news in 2022? Or what should we be looking for?

Rusty Stachlewitz 52:50
Well, I mean, lots of people are speculating on what prices are going to be this fall. And I will just tell you that with demand still high, with the cost of inputs, fertilizers, fuel, labor, all increasing still, I don’t think we’re going to see a reduction in seed pricing in fall of 2022. If we have a good crop this fall and then a good crop again next year, then potentially we’ll see a reduction in price. But for those people speculating on trying to wait till fall to get cheaper seed, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Additionally, because of the reduced supply, typically seed companies will have carryover from year to year. And so when you need seed in August, they’re pulling out of the previous year’s pile of seed. This year, they’re not going to have any carryover. And so they’re not going to have that pile to pull out of. So they’re going to have to go off this year’s crop, which means they’ve got to wait for it to be harvested, cleaned, and then tested. And that test can take up to four weeks from when it starts. Once again, there’s only so many testing facilities and spots. So there’s going to be a big bottleneck this fall in trying to get products out of Oregon, into distributors, warehouses, and to customers. And so my advice is to plan ahead and make sure you’ve got your seed. Make sure you know what it costs you and it’s on hand so you don’t have those issues when you’re going to need that product come August or early September.

Beth Berry 54:33
That is just genius from the seed czar at Advanced Turf Solutions, my buddy Rusty Stachlewitz. I can’t thank you enough for being here today, but most especially, everything you do for our customers. I’m just blown away that we have someone with your level of expertise and it makes going to work fun every day.

Rusty Stachlewitz 54:54
Well, thanks for having me out. It’s been a blast, and I could do this for another, I don’t know, nine or 10 hours straight.

Beth Berry 55:00
Me too, so that means we’re going to have to do a repeat performance. We’re going to pick this up. I’m going to go back through my notes. I had at least 25 more that I didn’t ask you, so we will bring you back here on Turf’s Up Radio. Your industry. Your station. And Rusty, thanks again for all your help today. I really appreciate it.

Rusty Stachlewitz 55:20
Thanks, Beth.

Beth Berry 55:21
We’ll see you.