In 2014, all eyes seemed to be on high-speed planting, with John Deere launching its new entry early in the year, joining the ranks of European manufacturers Amazone, Horsch and Vaderstad. Horsch was the latest to join the ranks with a high-speed corn planter in 2013 while Amazone and Vaderstad have been mainstays for several years across Europe.
Now, Peter Johnson, who was still cereal specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) at the time of this project, and Shane McClure, a Stratford-area farmer who is also the research lead within the wheat program, have studied the impacts of a Vaderstad Rapid 300. Among other details, they’re trying to determine the Rapid’s adaptability to Canadian conditions — and eastern Canadian conditions in particular.
The Rapid is another of these European designs that has been around for many years, much like the Vogelsang dribble-bar precision manure applicator, showcased at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in 2014. The technology isn’t new by definition, just new to most North American growers.
The Rapid has also enjoyed a similar degree of success. Its initial design was brought to market in the mid-1990s and has undergone several upgrades since. But what really sets the Rapid apart from other planter/drill units is its five-inch row spacing and its capacity to apply fertilizer in between rows instead of in the seed trench.
McClure used the Rapid to plant several plots of winter wheat around southern Ontario in the fall of 2014. One thing, he says, became clear right away.
This drill needs power. If you want to run it, you need a tractor with an abundance of horsepower, the same as with other high-speed planter units.
“From a research point of view, we’ve had a little bit of trouble in heavy soils or really dry conditions, to get the seed drill to go deep enough,” adds McClure, who also operates a sheep farm on his home operation. “That’s partly because we’re running with the drill almost empty most of the time compared to being full. Once we started filling up the fertilizer box, keeping some weight, it went a lot better from a depth standpoint.”
The success of the Rapid in European management can be attributed to a greater overall reliance on tillage, and although some may view that as a hurdle, McClure believes that it’s only a matter of familiarity that’s slowing its acceptance.
Of course, there’s also that five-inch spacing, which is outside the comfort zone of a lot of growers with their history of 7-1/2-inch rows for cereals.
“On the lighter ground, it worked perfect — we could run the tillage coulters and everything came up nicely,” says McClure. “But once we got onto some heavier ground, especially if the ground was not quite fit and we were still no tilling the wheat, we were still trying to figure out the best method for using this drill in those conditions.”
Although the 2014 planting season was his first running the Rapid for cereals, McClure did use it in 2013 to seed cover crops. As he says, it’s “fun to run,” provided the horsepower is available.
The jury’s still out
From Peter Johnson’s perspective, there are still a lot of questions to be answered regarding this design. The so-called “need for speed” is a lesser quality to be considered, he says, instead looking to the row spacing and the capacity for fertilizing between the rows. He also agrees with McClure’s initial statement about the need for more power.
“We had a Case IH Puma 230 on the front of a three-metre Rapid, and in untilled conditions — which I realize they’re not really designed for — but if we put the coulters in at their maximum depth, we could not keep the tractor up to speed — not at 10 kilometres per hour,” says Johnson. “So the horsepower requirements can be massive. It’s not as versatile in untilled soil as a John Deere or a Krause or a Sunflower or what we would call a true no-till drill. It’s not really designed to close the slot well in a no-till situation.”
To maximize its capabilities under tough no-till conditions, it’s best to slow down and put maximum pressure on the seed openers, and Johnson adds that you might have to opt out of running the tillage coulters to make it workable in a wetter no-till system.
This is also where he believes there’s more room for exploring the Rapid’s adaptability for North American cereal production, particularly with five-inch spacing and inter-row fertilization. Johnson cites Danish research that suggests a band of fertilizer away from the seed is better than a band of fertilizer right with the seed. The Rapid’s separate opener system — with one fertilizer opener for every two seed openers — creates a type of two-by-two placement of fertilizer that’s similar to a corn planter. And he’s less concerned about salt injury to the seed using the five-inch drill, relative to a typical 7-1/2-inch drill.
“Fertilizer has a higher affinity for water than the seed, so if you put the fertilizer right with the seed, the seed doesn’t germinate until the fertilizer dissolves,” says Johnson. “If the fertilizer is not there (with the seed in the row), the seed will imbibe quicker and may well emerge a day sooner than if the fertilizer is with the seed.”
Johnson stresses that he doesn’t have the data that conclusively shows that as evidence; again, 2014 was their first year with the Rapid. But the principle of the fertilizer taking the water ahead of the seed is a certainty. (A “pop-up” fertilizer doesn’t really help the plant pop out of the ground any faster, Johnson says. It’s just that once the crop does get up and starts establishing its root system, the higher phosphorus concentration allows the plant to grow faster, overcoming the initial delay in emergence.)
More considerations too
Despite the narrower rows, Johnson emphasizes that the plant count remains the same. Instead of planting 21 seeds per foot of row, five-inch row spacing calls for roughly 14, so there’s more spacing between the plants in the rows.
Johnson recalls research done in the 1980s which tried to mimic the effect of narrower row spacing. Work was done by Dr. Abe Teich (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), and Drs. Arend Smid and John Rowsell from the University of Guelph, with Teich and Smid using a seven-inch row spacing, planted in one pass, and then offset and planted again to create a 3-1/2-inch row spacing. Rowsell used a European drill in his work. In the post-harvest analysis, there was no yield increase at Harrow or at Ridgetown, so it was concluded that there was insufficient evidence to justify narrower rows in wheat.
“But at New Liskeard, where they got an Amazone drill and planted on four-inch spacings and compared that to seven inch, they actually got a three to four per cent yield increase (with the narrower rows),” says Johnson. Yet he cautions against reading too much into those results. “Was the yield increase because they’re farther north and earlier canopy closure captured more sunlight, building a bigger plant that had more yield potential? Or is it something to do with driving over the field twice (at Harrow and Ridgetown) with a seven-inch drill that had a negative impact on seed development from added compaction?”
That is just one of several questions they’re trying to answer using the Rapid.
Asked if there are any concerns about heightened disease potential, Johnson downplays that scenario noting that in good wheat crops in 7-1/2-inch rows, there is very little air movement in such a thick canopy. In five-inch rows, the same holds true; the difference is going to be quite minimal. In soybeans, he adds, the difference in the incidence of white mould in 7-1/2-inch rows versus 15-inch rows is also limited. Although 15-inch rows will have slightly less mould potential, the only way to really cut that risk is to widen the rows to 30 inches — and give up three to four bushels in yield.