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Drought-riddled 2016 will likely mean sod shortage this year

Increased inputs likely to increase the price of sod as well


March 15, 2017
By Monica Dick

Kentucky bluegrass sod grown for commercial purposes is expected to be in short supply this year in some Ontario markets, including the Greater Toronto Area, the president of the Nursery Sod Growers Association of Ontario says.

Greg Skotnicki of Manderley Turf Products said last year’s extreme drought is largely to blame for the expected shortage.

“Their (sod producers) new seeding didn’t do very well, and they cut into a lot of inventory,” he said. “The suspicion is there will be a shortage of sod. It’s hard to tell how much because we don’t report numbers. I think there will definitely be a shortage, and I suspect there will be price increases associated with it.”

The shortage is expected to affect mainly the commercial landscaping and municipal markets.

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Last summer’s drought meant irrigation had to be stepped up in many regions of Ontario to grow in the still immature crop seeded in the fall of 2015 and to keep inventories healthy. The expense associated with the increased demand for water at a time when it was already in short supply is apt to be passed on to the customer this year.

Of the approximately 55 sod-growing operations in Ontario, 20 to 25 of them are likely to realize shortages, Skotnicki said, noting their operations are in areas affected most by drought.

Tom Brayford, owner of Brayford Sod in Alliston and a director with the NSGAO, said there is a high concentration of sod producers in his geographic area near Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto.

“All of us in this area are feeling the crunch of a shortage, and it’s mostly because of dry, dry conditions which affected seedings from last year,” he said. “Seedings that we expected to be harvesting next year are not mature enough, and some is an out-and-out loss.”

Unless upcoming seedings can be pushed, things will be tight, Brayford said.

Most producers seed in August or September and can normally expect to harvest sufficiently mature turfgrass by the spring of the following year at the earliest. Several factors – notably the weather – can disrupt the timetable spanning seeding to harvest.

Several producers were forced to re-seed last fall and put down greater amounts to compensate for the loss experienced in 2016.

Brayford said the Alliston area is blessed with good groundwater resources for irrigation purposes, but sod producers in other areas of the province aren’t as fortunate.

“We have the capability of irrigating to a point,” he said, adding that in particularly dry years producers must abide by water-taking restrictions imposed by government ministries and local conservation authorities.

“You can’t water like a drunken sailor,” Brayford said. “Without irrigation or moisture, it’s very difficult to just simply harvest the grass.”

Aggressive fertility and irrigation
He said producers are trying to weather last year’s “storm,” anticipating that they might be able to “push” this year’s crop. Producers are banking on their seeding from the fall of 2016 through aggressive fertility and irrigation, and hope Mother Nature will do her part to help.

“With the right amount of input, you can push that grass and potentially get onto that crop in less time,” Brayford said. “But if we have a repeat performance of last year – which is out of our control – and you have two years of disastrous germinations proceedings, now we’re in big trouble because nobody has three or four years of inventory.

“You can try to weather and stomach one bad year. A second one is catastrophic.”

Brayford said he couldn’t remember the last time the industry experienced back-to-back years of bad growing conditions.

“We’ve always been able to make do and get through that second year and kind of make up for the first one,” he said. “This is going to be a pivotal spring. If it’s a disaster, it’s really going to be a crunch we haven’t seen before. We’re all crossing our fingers that we get a proper germination and rebound.”

Skotnicki suggested customers should be apprised of an expected sod shortage so that they can plan accordingly.

“If they’re bidding on jobs, I think they definitely need to contact their sod supplier to arrange pricing, and I wouldn’t go on the assumption of what you paid last year is what you’ll pay this year,” he said.

Customers who commit to volumes should be first in line to get sod, Skotnicki said.

“If you’re not prepared to commit, then you’re taking your chances.”

Between 75 and 80 per cent of sod customers who will feel the pinch are landscape contractors while municipal sports turf managers represent the remainder.

Skotnicki said there is little sod producers can do to prevent or protect against drought. Sod will require more frequent irrigation that will bump up its price.

“There’s not much you can do in the short term to solve the problem. Hopefully you’ll catch up the next year or the year after.”

He said of a five-year period growing sod, one year tends to be outstanding, three are standard years, and one is usually sub-standard. The coming season is expected to be less than standard, he added.

It generally takes 18 to 24 months to grow a crop ready for harvest. When there is a shortage of water as well as the need to irrigate, the cost of sod will increase significantly because more money will have to be sunk into irrigation.

“There’s nothing that helps sod more than Mother Nature,” Skotnicki said, noting that ample snow cover during the winter months will lead to a healthy water table.

He said Manderley wasn’t hit as hard by drought last summer as some operations were elsewhere in Ontario. Located in eastern Ontario, Manderley’s inventory is in good shape, he said.