Modernisation is following consolidation in the UK grass seed industry, with the three main grass seed suppliers each investing substantial sums in ensuring internal efficiency and higher quality and service for customers. The three are nearly all that remain after two decades of upheaval in the UK grass seed market, which previously sustained more than 20 suppliers.
The sector is also entering a period of rising grass seed prices due to the higher returns offered by alternative crops such as wheat and oilseed rape, and also increasing transport costs.
In the face of this, all three have invested heavily in warehousing and distribution to bring these up to norms seen in other commercial sectors.
Eighteen months ago, Barenbrug UK, daughter company of the Dutch seed breeder Royal Barenbrug Group, installed new facilities including a blender and racking system at its Falkirk premises, which now serves as a hub for its distribution across Scotland and northern England.
More recently, British Seed Houses (BSH) completed the building of a new office and dispatch warehouse at its Witham St Hughs site near Lincoln, while DLF Trifolium will shortly complete a finished-goods warehouse and dispatch area at its headquarters at Inkberrow, Worcestershire.
DLF sells around 12,000 tonnes of grass seed a year in the UK, worth £25m and accounting for around 45 per cent of the total. The company has sought to consolidate its operations at its Inkberrow and Leith sites, closing down its Lincolnshire warehouse with the loss of four jobs late last year.
According to production manager Darren Cuthbert: "Haulage is expensive, so by reducing the number of sites, we reduce our internal transfer costs."
Its new warehouse, on the site of a former boiler room and workshop, represents an investment of nearly £500,000 for the Danish-owned company. "The directors took a lot of convincing," says Cuthbert. "It's not a very modern industry and it can be difficult to get people to think differently."
Amenity sales manager Derek Smith explains the motivation. "It's all about doing more for less," he says. "The extra storage capacity means we can pre-pack out of season and store the product in good condition. It's better organised so it's easier to pack, and there's less wastage. It also allows us to use fewer, better quality staff throughout the year."
No small matter, given concerns over skills and recruitment in the sector (see box, p26). The industry's high seasonality sees nearly two-thirds of DLF's annual turnover come from just eight weeks of sales. "This helps us spread the load," says Smith.
Remaining elements to be completed at DLF include a dispatch area, which should be ready in June. This will accommodate a buffer of 24 palettes ready for loading onto lorries, which can number up to four a day in high season.
Modern warehouse design has been key to increased efficiency of space and handling for both DLF and BSH. Lincolnshire remains a well-placed hub for BSH, says amenity sales development manager Simon Taylor. "Being near the A1 and M1 means communications are ideal, and there's plenty of space." The site, on the former runway of an old airfield, now has a new 7,000sq m dispatch warehouse and office, and according to managing director William Gilbert, "has room for further expansion if required".
He says of the new design: "Racking has made a huge difference by allowing us to increase storage."
Efficiency has been increased by placing aisles close together - an option made possible by the use of pivoting forklift trucks, which have a much tighter turning circle.
The new format also reduces the chance of vermin damage. Mice, the traditional bane of seed storage, are unable to reach the raised containers, so there is no need to fumigate the premises - an option restricted by recent legislation.
"We can be more confident the finished goods are in prime condition," says Taylor.
DLF's new plant also uses articulated forklifts to minimise aisle width, and has gone a step further by investing in roller racking, similar to the moveable bookshelves and files in document archives.
According to Cuthbert: "By using only one working aisle, it maximises storage space. You can store over 1,500 palettes in 8,000sq ft )750sq m), compared to around 2,100 palettes in our 20,000sq ft (1,850sq m) static warehouse."
Internal handling now involves less "rip and tip", he adds. Rodent-proof wooden clip-lock boxes replaced the more perishable metal-framed cardboard boxes. These are labelled with batch details to allow each to be handled and traced accurately.
Around 60 per cent of DLF's seed comes from the company's network of 5,200 growers in Denmark. These now arrive boxed rather than packaged, allowing more automated handling.
BSH has also minimised the need for interim packaging. "We aim to use less of it," says Taylor. "It costs more and because it's of different strengths you can't recycle it. Now it's really only for the end user."
Once purely a seed wholesaler, DLF became a major player in the consumer grass seed market when it took over UK seed company Perryfields, owner of the Johnsons brand, in 2001. The company has since specialised in supplying bulk seed orders to larger retailers, selling around 1,000 tonnes annually to B&Q alone.
"We have a very good service level with B&Q," says Cuthbert. "They're quite stringent, and they will drop you down the list if the driver is late or the packaging is damaged, and fine you too."
Harsh though this may sound, Cuthbert sees it as stimulating his section to provide higher standards generally. "We want amenity and forage buyers to get the same level of service," he says. "We've got the product and the pricing right - the way we can benefit the customer now is through improved service."
Packaging lines can handle both standard cardboard boxes and also plastic pouches, the latter now favoured by B&Q.
Cuthbert does not see the trend to pouches as necessarily continuing though. "There is more of a wow factor initially," he says. "But if you look at soap powders, they've now gone back to boxes."
DLF took the decision to package its newest consumer line, All Weather Lawn, in a predominantly pink box, depicting female models. "Research by ourselves and others has shown that women buy grass seed more often than men," says Cuthbert.
Site manager Roy Harris describes grass seed as "a mature market". Of retailers, he says: "They expect you to come up with new products they can sell."
The pace of new product development at Inkberrow has been stepped up, says marketing manager Miranda Harris. "Though the breeding goes on in Denmark, we are often the first to develop them as saleable products," she says. "That's what happened with Micro-Clover and RTF (rhizomatous tall fescue, a component of All Weather Lawn)."
BSH, meanwhile, entered the box lawn trade market in 1995, "Before then it was a dumping ground for agricultural seed," says Taylor. "To an extent, we cleaned up the industry, though there are still some semi-agricultural varieties out there."
BSH ensures high purity through its Defra-registered seed testing station, now housed in the new premises. Here, batches are assessed against both UK seed regulations and the company's own internal standard for purity and germination, which is carried out in incubators at specific temperatures.
"It means that when we supply it to the turf grower, we know it's in the purest possible state," says Taylor.
"We are relatively unusual in that we go for added value - top-end material - so it tends to be at the higher end of the price scale," says Gilbert.
Taylor insists there is good reason for a premium price. "If the end user looks for the best quality, that means investment going back in," he says. "But if it's only based on price, then improvement would stop - there would be no new varieties. Constant investment means constant improvement, but that's a difficult message to get through."
R&D is key for BSH, which is the last major breeder of grass seed in the UK, thanks to its acquisition in the 1980s of the Institute of Grassland & Environmental Research.
"We helped them refocus," says Gilbert.
The institute now has an extensive breeding programme for the sports and consumer markets, besides its work at the forefront of forage grass and clover development.
Right now, breeding priorities include adapting to a changing climate. "There is a line of low rainfall and high temperature moving north across Europe," says Taylor. "But with mild, damp winters you also want disease resistance. It's very difficult to breed for all conditions."
One solution the company employs is to produce a family of varieties, with for example different heat and cold tolerances suitable for different latitudes.
"We can sell anywhere the climate is roughly similar to our own," says Gilbert. "We do well in northern central Europe, parts of North and South America, South Africa and New Zealand. For Eastern Europe though, you need very different material."
While BSH sources mainly from UK growers based chiefly in the west of England, the company also owns a New Zealand-based supplier. "New Zealand seed production is six months out of kilter, which helps ensure a consistent supply," says Taylor. "But generally it more economic sense to grow most of it in the UK."
Attracting and retaining able and motivated staff remains a headache for the grass seed industry, its rural location limiting the pool of available labour.
"We've made five appointments to different departments lately, but it's hard to find staff," says BSH's William Gilbert.
"They tend to be people with some connection to the industry," adds Simon Taylor. "At one time people had links to, and affinity with, agriculture and horticulture - that's been lost, and we're competing against other industries which are perhaps more attractive."
Training is a necessary commitment. "There's no 'grass seed qualification' that people come with, so that means lots of in-house training to get people to a suitable standard," says Gilbert. "But it's a huge amount of investment - we don't want to train them up and then lose them."
The company recently took staff to the Golf Course Superintendents Association conference in California. "The US is the world leader in golf course maintenance," says Gilbert. "It was an opportunity to keep our guys up with the latest in the industry."
DLF is also committed to staff development. Darren Cuthbert says: "Most companies employ a minimum number of permanent staff and make the rest up with temporary staff. But that way you lose the quality of work. So we look to keep up our core staff, and invest in training, both internal and external."
Recruitment is still a headache for the company though, he says. "We're a bit out in the Styx and it can be hard enticing people to come out here. We pay a little more than the going rate to make up for the travel involved."
GOING WILD FOR FLOWERS
All three major grass seed suppliers also supply wildflower mixes for the amenity market. "It's small volume, but high value," says DLF's Darren Cuthbert. "It's taken off in the past five years."
The market tends to follow government expenditure on infrastructure projects. "We supply for a lot of work on motorway and railway embankments, sometimes mixed with grass seed," says Cuthbert.
DLF badges its own ProFlora range, suitable for a variety of soil types and habitats, and will also mix to order.
Mixes are prepared in a small cement mixer rather than a conventional seed mixer. "It's costly to produce - a couple of grams can be worth several pounds - and this way you don't lose any," says Cuthbert.
Some species can be machine harvested, while others such primrose and cowslip need to by gathered by hand - a fact reflected in the price.
As yet there is no legislation governing wildflower seed quality as there is for grass seed. BSH's Simon Taylor says: "It's an anomaly, though it would be very difficult to do on something so variable. But we have own standards - for example, to ensure no ragwort gets in."
BSH also avoids blanket harvesting of meadows. "You only get viable seed from about 10 per cent of the flowers at one go, and by doing that you deplete the meadow," says Taylor.
While some specialists supply seed of known regional origin, Taylor says this is prohibitive to do in commercial volumes, but adds: "We source from a variety of places in the country, which ensures a wide genetic diversity."