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High-tech seeding

New equipment options promise growers more and better control over this critical field operation

Over the years, few field operations have caused growers more head scratching.

Seeding is the critical first step in getting a good crop, and there are many variables in play. Is the seedbed right? Are the fertilizer and seed separation acceptable? Is the seed placed evenly? Is it being sown at the right depth?

As equipment becomes more complex and the demand for precision grows, another fact is emerging clearly. High-tech seeders are going to be the heart of the move to zone management, variable rates and other techniques that promise lower inputs, better crops and environmental benefits.

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This has naturally translated into a lot of interest by equipment manufacturers, and innovative new designs and strategies to address this growing need. In this issue Country Guide has spoken to the manufacturer with some of the most promising new technology to see what’s arriving in the field today and what it can do for growers.

Get smart

Where most farm machinery companies are adding precision agriculture technology to established designs like large air seeders, CleanSeed’s SMART Seeder started with a blank slate and came up with a design for this new way of farming, says Saskatchewan farmer and company vice-president Colin Rosengren.

The company designed a unique hybrid of an air seeder and gravity-fed planter that uses air to move the seed and product from bulk tanks to small gravity-fed seeders that look a lot more like a traditional corn planter, with a high-tech difference. Each can be individually adjusted on the fly to create tailored applications almost down to the individual plant level, using up to six different products.

Each of CleanSeed’s SMART Seeder tanks can be individually adjusted on the fly to create tailored applications almost down to the individual plant level.

Each of CleanSeed’s SMART Seeder tanks can be individually adjusted on the fly to create tailored applications almost down to the individual plant level.

“Right now when we talk about precision agriculture, we’re going out and painting with an 80-foot paintbrush,” says Rosengren. “That’s not precise enough, you might be giving a better prescription to maybe 10 per cent of the acres you cover.”

It’s like traditional agriculture takes a 30,000-foot view, and what most of us think of as precision agriculture might be a 3,000-foot view. This takes the view down to 30 feet, Rosengren explains, noting that to really capture the full value of precision agriculture, that level of fine control will be necessary.

He also notes precision agriculture comes with logistical challenges that the new technology addresses.

While many growers concede that more precision would be a good idea, they struggle with the reality of managing multiple fertilizer blends, for example, during a very short seeding season. Here the solution again takes advantage of the unique design. If the seeding units are “smart” the carts are, relatively speaking, “dumb.”

“They don’t have metering or controls or anything like that, they’re very simple, and the blend is created at the planter,” Rosengren explains. “The fact they’re cheaper than other carts makes having more of them, for multiple blends or transportation and logistics simplicity, more affordable.”

Different delivery system

It makes the carts relatively cheap, and another design wrinkle further aids logistics. They’re designed to be filled in the farmyard, hauled out to the field using a highway tractor, and the seeder itself just hooks up to them. It minimizes downtime for refilling, and addresses the reality that in some years, especially wet ones, there might not be a good spot in every field to set up the refill system. Rosengren’s own operation incorporates numerous crops, inter-sown crops and multiple fertility blends.

“On our farm we set the logistical bar pretty high,” Rosengren says. “I like to think those challenges helped us design something that addresses those challenges.”

The gravity-fed planters also offer another key difference from traditional air seeders. Those implements are really good at getting a lot of seed into the ground relatively quickly, but have always struggled with accurate seed placement and spacing.

“This system really combines the best of both worlds, giving you accurate placement but with the same ability to handle a lot of seed and product fairly quickly,” Rosengren says.

In addition, a unique in-ground system provides better fertilizer separation, incorporates a bit of vertical tillage, and leaves the seeds in a mellow unpacked seed row that enables both better water infiltration and drainage and gets tender seedlings off to a better start, the company says.

“We’re quite excited about our in-ground system, and how it provides better conditions for the seed, and doesn’t create that hard-packed layer right below the seed,” Rosengren says.

The system was prototyped and field tested last season. This winter CleanSeed partnered with a Manitoba-based manufacturer with farm equipment experience to produce the first three production models for this spring.

Cut the wire

One of the perennial complaints about the high-tech monitors and controls for modern farm equipment has long been the spools of wire and complex cab-mounted controllers.

In many ways they’ve been seen as a necessary evil, but one company thinks there’s a better way — a way built on the burgeoning consumer technology that’s all around us.

Rather than developing its own control system, Seed Hawk uses an iPad for its wireless iCon seeding system.

Rather than developing its own control system, Seed Hawk uses an iPad for its wireless iCon seeding system.

Langbank, Saskatchewan’s Seed Hawk Inc. — now a member of the global Väderstad group of companies based in Sweden — recently introduced its wireless iCon control system based, as you might guess from the name, on the Apple iPad platform and using a custom-built app to control the equipment wirelessly.

Edward Lambert, Seed Hawk’s head of research and development, says there were a lot of compelling reasons to make this jump, something that’s comparable to the leapfrogging of wired telephone infrastructure by cellphones in developing nations.

“It really saves us a lot of effort and expense not developing a new operating platform, but basing it on the iPad,” Lambert explains. “It’s something most people are using these days, they’re familiar with it and the interface is very easy for people to understand.”

In fact, in a funny way, it might seem a bit too simple, causing some users to assume they already know how to run it.

“One of our problems has actually been people foregoing reading the directions because it seems very straightforward to them,” Lambert says.

In addition to using a readily available and understood technology, it can leverage the functionality of the iPad for greater convenience for farmers.

For example, if farmers want to test calibration of a meter or make fine adjustments, they can take the iPad with them to the precision meters.

It’s linked wirelessly to the control mechanisms on the seeder using the device’s built-in bluetooth connection, allowing them to carry the controller back to the machine instead of shuttling endlessly between the machine and the tractor cab.

“We think this is a real convenience for farmers,” Lambert says. “Not only will it save them a lot of time running back and forth, it also lets them do adjustments by them- selves that would otherwise take two people.”

The elevated computing power also allows the machines to do more. It can use prescription maps to control application rates, generate as-applied field maps, show real-time job progress and allow for simple in-field calibration.

The system also has automatic and manual control options that can turn sections of the seeder on and off, blockage monitors for all runs and a unique “fit-to-field” mode that can empty the tank over the remaining acres in a field.

“That feature is a real convenience to growers who want to be able to make quick changeovers between fields,” Lambert says.

All in all Lambert says just a few simple words sum up the design approach: “It’s very user-friendly.”

Doubling down

There’s little doubt that variety and hybrid selection can make a big difference for growers. Various options are frequently well adapted to different conditions and less well adapted to others — conditions that can frequently exist in the same field.

That’s the reality that has led Kinze to develop its multi-hybrid planter, a bulk-fill planter with dual meters that allows farmers to switch between two hybrids in the field based on a prescription map, says Phil Jennings, the company’s service manager.

“Farmers have told us they want the ability to switch back and forth between varieties or hybrids without stopping,” Jennings says. “They know their different management zones, and that they’ll perform best with different hybrids.”

In corn in the U.S. the technique has delivered about 7.9 bushels an acre higher yield, according to an independent study by Beck’s Hybrids.

“We feel this technology has a very attractive return on investment,” Jennings says.

Agriculture media reports in the U.S. peg the cost at around $30,000 more than a comparable planter without multi-hybrid capabilities.

Jennings says growers typically set zones using several different criteria. Some use soil types, others are looking at fertility levels and others are interested in historical yield patterns.

“They’re basing their zone maps on the factors they feel are most important for their individual farms,” Jennings says.

Offence and defence

When it comes to hybrid selection, the strategy is framed in terms of “offensive” and “defensive” hybrids, with attention paid to finding two with matching maturity.

An offensive hybrid is one that will take advantage of optimal conditions to maximize production, but which falls off in parts of the field that are less productive or under stressful conditions. A defensive hybrid is the opposite side of that coin — it performs well under stress or in less-than-optimal conditions, but won’t perform as well under optimal conditions.

Fields are also said to have a certain amount of “middle ground” that’s neither peak potential or less productive, causing a fair bit of head scratching about which hybrid to plant there. One strategy U.S. growers are using is to look at the field on an overall basis, and if they consider it to be above average, the middle ground gets the offensive hybrid, and lower-than-average fields play defence on the middle ground.

Jennings expects growers will seek more and more of this sort of technology as the true potential of zone management becomes apparent.

“I don’t think we’re going to see anything but more precision and more call for this sort of technology over time,” he says.

Kinze uses Raven controllers to run the dual-metering system on the planter, and the meters are driven by 24-volt electric motors, which allows for instant start-stops and also gives row by row control, which allows for features like curve compensation for turns.

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