As summer rolls on and temperatures in the Ozarks rise, another frenetic season of harvesting, buying and selling tall fescue seed has come and gone.
Fields have been cut, their yield tallied, and many combines around Texas County won’t see action again until next June.
And while unfavorable spring conditions made for a season that is being labeled by south-central Missouri growers, harvesters and buyers alike as “slow,” or “down,” there was still a pretty fair amount of seed to be dealt with in a region known for its tall fescue production.
For more than 20 years, one of Texas County’s primary locations for those dealings has been Milam’s Seed Buying Station on Highway 17 in Bucyrus. Dwight Milam first started buying fescue seed at the location in 1988. While he is now retired and helps out in an advisory capacity while his daughter Angelia Moore is in charge, he has seen his share of fescue seasons and knows what is involved in running a buying station during the annual rush.
“You’re either eating, sleeping or running your butt off,” Milam said. “There ain’t no in between.”
Moore, who works a regular day job at Evans sports in Houston, began helping in the buying station yard at the age of 14. She and her husband Verlin took over the business eight years ago.
“It’s a few weeks of chaos and confusion and then it’s over,” Moore said. “We look forward to it starting, but we’re very, very glad when it’s over.”
When a customer brings in a load of seed, their vehicle is weighed while still full and again after being emptied, with the difference representing the number of pounds of seed in the load. Milam’s is equipped with scales formerly used to weigh trucks and railroad cars that Dwight purchased in Kansas just prior to beginning the operation.
The vintage equipment has no electronic parts, and has never needed any kind of repair since being installed. It also never fails to receive annual re-certification by the state of Missouri.
“I put them in 1988 and they haven’t been touched since,” Milam said. “And the state boys will tell you that they’re about as close to a perfect set of scales as you can get.
“And they’ll weigh as little as two pounds to as much as 240,000 pounds.”
When customers sell seed at Milam’s, they’re actually selling it to Beachner Seed, of Lamar, Mo. (a subsidiary of Beachner Companies in St. Paul, Kan.), which contracts with numerous buying stations around the region. Milam’s has been an agent for Beachner for 18 years.
Tall fescue is the common name for a species of fescue grass introduced from Europe into the United States in the late 19th century that became widely used as forage in the 1940s. The dominant strain in America is Kentucky 31, developed in 1931 by University of Kentucky professor E.N. Fergus.
While some tall fescue seed harvested in the U.S. ends up being used to reseed pastures and fields, most – about 80 percent – goes on to be bagged and sold as lawn seed. Regardless of where it was grown, or what strain it came from, it’s usually marketed as Kentucky 31 – even the stuff grown in Missouri.
Tall fescue is a hardy plant that is well-suited to grow in the Ozarks.
“It’ll grow on top of rocks,” Milam said.
Although tall fescue is a cash crop, its season is short and it usually isn’t a primary source of income. But it can bring in enough to help cover the cost of necessities like fertilizer and insurance.
“It’s a pretty good supplement to a lot of farmers around here,” Milam said, “but it’s only three weeks out of the year. You need another job.”
“There are some people who have daytime jobs and schedule their vacation time around doing this,” Moore said. “They hit it hard the week it needs to be hit and then go back to their 9-to-5 job.”
During a given year, Milam’s might buy anywhere from half-a-million to three million pounds of tall fescue seed. This year, Dwight expects the amount that passed through on its way to Lamar to be on the low end of that range.
“It’s not a good year,” he said. “It’s probably going to barely bump a million.”
Cold nights and even frost in May wreaked havoc on pollination cycles in most Ozarks fescue fields.
“This year we had only about a week of pollinating,” Milam said. “That put some seed early and some seed late, and some didn’t even make because the frost got it. We actually found some seed that had frozen ends.”
But despite the below average yield this season, Moore and her mother Rita Milam cut dozens of checks to farmers who brought loads in all kinds of vehicles, from shiny new dump trucks to highly experienced trucks and trailers. And with each pound containing about 347,000 seeds, even a below average harvest represents a lot of fescue seed.
“A lot of money changes hands here that goes back into the community,” Milam said. “People don’t really realize that, but it sure helps. Whether it’s for tire repair, welding repair or whatever, the farmers spend that money and it’s good for the whole community.”
Loads of fescue seed contain varying amounts moisture and of other organic material, such as the seed of orchard grass, which is common in this region. To determine how much each load is worth, samples are examined utilizing machines that measure moisture content and percentage of pure seed.
Fescue seed prices are also affected by other factors, including cattle prices. When beef prices are up, fescue goes up as well since farmers use their fields more for grazing and less seed ends up being harvested. Another factor is competition from Oregon, where farmers have begun growing a new fescue strain as a row crop.
Moore said that prices being paid this year in Missouri were 33 cents per pound for “wet” seed (more than 14-percent moisture) and 35 cents for dry.
Rather than selling seed outright, farmers have the option of “storing” it, which is basically like playing the stock market. It they opt to store (which is not in a literal sense, but a paperwork sense), they have until March 1 of the following year to contact the buyer (Beachner, in the case of Milam’s customers) and sell at any time.
That’s means good news if the price of fescue seed goes up, bad news if it goes down.
“We have a few who store,” Moore said, “but the way the economy is, most can’t afford to do that and they just take the money and run.”
Whether or not a given year features a bumper crop, Milam’s comes alive each June during tall fescue season. In addition to its financial benefits, the season offers a chance for many people to renew friendships and acquaintances with others they might see only during that time of year.
And the cross section of folks who come and go at Milam’s includes every imaginable age, gender and background.
“The ones who run combines range in age from 13 to a gentleman who’s 88 and said this is his last year of combining,” Moore said. “But we really do deal with a lot of interesting farmers and people here, and they all have their own character.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”