March 29, 2022
Last fall I planted 50 pounds of two-year-old Buck Forage brand oat seed into a food plot. I’d kept the seed in its original sealed cardboard box and heavy parchment sack, just as it’d arrived via the UPS man in 2019. The seed was stored off the ground in a dark, dry and (relatively) cool corner in an open-air barn. I knew oats are tough, but still I was surprised by the high germination rate that I witnessed.
The fact the oats came up so well got me thinking and led to me ask: How long can seeds remain viable for germination, and what conditions prolong viability? I was curious, so I did some research. What I found amazed me!
Perusing the web, I found an article from National Geographic detailing the successful germination of a 2,000-year-old date palm tree seed from the Judean desert. In 2005, agriculture expert Elaine Solowey, of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel, was responsible for germinating the seed, which was recovered in the 1960s from the remains of an ancient fortification known as Masada.
Amazingly, I found evidence of older — much older, in fact — seeds germinated in a laboratory.
In 2012, the same publication reported that a team of Russian scientists unearthed a seed cache of Silene stenophylla, a flowering plant native to Siberia. The seeds, found in primitive squirrel burrows 124 feet under permafrost, were tested with radiocarbon dating and confirmed to be approx. 32,000 years old. Not only were scientists able to germinate some of the seeds, but the plants have since grown, flowered and produced viable seeds of their own.
What This Means for Land Managers
Well, if you’re a wildlife steward, you likely work with a lot of seed — perhaps cereal grains, native grasses, small plot seeds, etc. And knowing how to properly store and protect those seeds can result not only in higher germination rates (and in turn, nutritional benefit to wildlife), but also an overall cost and labor savings.
There are many scenarios when a land manager finds him or herself with excess seed that must be stored. Whether you had leftover seed after planting, couldn’t plant due to weather or other reasons, or perhaps purchased discounted seed for later use, it’s critical you take steps to store the seed properly, so that it isn’t damaged by the elements, insects and/or rodents.
I learned my methods for seed storage from North American Whitetail contributors Dr. James C. Kroll and wildlife biologist Rob Hughes. Below you’ll find a Q&A forum where both experts weigh in on the topic.
Asking the Experts
QUESTION: What are the preferred environmental conditions for storing seed, and what storage methods help ensure seed viability?
Rob Hughes (RH): Seed should be stored in a cool and dry area. Heat and insects will quicklydestroy stored seed. Galvanized trash cans with lids, commercial seed tubs and buckets work well. They should be palletized above ground and kept out of the elements. Rodent damage can be controlled with many commercially available rodenticides, but rodent and mouse resistant containers are ideal.
QUESTION: What types of seed can be saved, and what seed types/varieties last the longest?
RH: That’s a loaded question! Many varieties of seed can be stored reliably under ideal storage conditions.
Native grass seed is especially “dormant” or “hard-seeded” as a natural defense from drought or poor growing conditions. Cereal grains can be stored between seasons with a little effort. Small seed varieties can lose germination very quickly under poor storage.
QUESTION: What information can be found on a seed tag, and how can it help me?
RH: Agricultural labeling laws vary from state to state. For the average consumer, most of the information on a seed tag is easily understood. A recent lab test date is one of the most critical pieces of information. Seed variety and germination percentage tells the buyer what specific seed variety is in the bag or container and what percentage of that seed has been lab tested (hopefully recently) for ability to germinate.
QUESTION: If using seed that’s been stored, is there a simple way to test germination prior to planting?
Dr. James C. Kroll (JK): “There is an easy way to test germination. Wrap 10-20 randomly selected seeds from the container in a wet paper towel, then place them in a Ziploc bag and store in a warm place. Check after three days and until no new seeds germinate. Divide the number germinating by the total tested to get the germination rate.
QUESTION: Is it sound practice to seed at a higher rate when using stored seed?
JK: Barring a germination test, we recommend sewing 1.5-2X the recommended rate. If you do a germination test, check the tested rate on the seed tag, and compare it to the measured rate. Adjust the seeding rate according to difference.
QUESTION: Do these same methods apply when using inoculated seed? Does inoculant need to be re-applied after storage?
JK: Inoculants are living organisms, very sensitive to temperature and moisture. They should be stored in a refrigerator and used before the expiration date. We do not recommend buying pre-inoculated seed, since you have no idea the conditions under which the seed have been stored. It may be convenient to use pre-inoculated seed, but not very wise.
The Take Away
The above information concerning seed storage methods is relevant for land managers preparing for the upcoming warm season planting time. So, if you’re sitting on seed that’s left over from last year or earlier, don’t ditch it.
Instead, take preparations to store it safely, in a cool and dry area safe from rodents. When it’s time to plant, conduct a germination test and set your seed rate according to the germination rate. With any luck, the result will be a higher return on your seed investment and greater benefit to wildlife.