Paul Hodgins had already been doing a good bit of business as an aerial applicator, answering calls from chemical companies and performing test-plot applications as well as applying fungicides for growers. In between, too, more calls were also coming in to air-seed cover crops, along with some requests for air-seeding winter cereals.
Now, with lower commodity prices driving more interest in soil health enhancements like cover crops, Hodgins is fielding more questions about a wider spectrum of cover crop options, including diverse blends. One customer near Hanover, Ont., for instance, had him seed an oat-ryegrass cover crop for erosion control in 2014, and then in 2015 asked Hodgins to seed 400 acres of winter wheat at 180 to 200 pounds per acre.
That’s when Hodgins realized he needed some help, and that he had to purchase an advanced loading system custom-made for aerial applicators. Hodgins, president of General Airspray Ltd., of Lucan, Ont., found a used loader manufactured by Auger Dan, LLC, based in Truman, Arkansas.
Hodgins is impressed with “the 7.5,” as it’s known, and especially with its capacity for loading up to 7,500 pounds of product. (The company also manufactures “the 10K” loader unit, conveyor belt trucks, and mixing vats.)
The 7.5 unit is fully self-contained, with a host truck PTO, adjustable height on material delivery, a foldable auger tube (for road/highway transportation) and digital scales, among other features.
Hodgins had seen and heard about various units in years past, either from trade magazines or while in the U.S. at sprayer conventions. Then, with more cover crop acres, he went electronic, with more Internet and YouTube searches.
“It was always a different system compared to our liquid loading unit, and it’s always the speed of loading and getting the aircraft back in the air that’s the biggest concern,” says Hodgins. “Last year, we did a couple hundred acres up at Hanover, and the farmer used a large auger truck, but the auger was at the back, so we’d have to shut down, have him back up and move the auger over the hopper. So we were probably on the ground for more than 10 or 12 minutes.”
Fast and simple
With the new loader, it takes Hodgins roughly two or three minutes to load the airplane, depending on the load. That means the plane can be back in the air in less than half the time of the rear-loading auger unit, which makes quite a difference on larger acreages, especially on days when the goal is to get as much planted as possible during the morning before wind speeds pick up.
In the past, loading any dry material, such as annual ryegrass for a Middlesex Soil and Crop Improvement Association project, usually meant heaving 50-pound bags of seed.
“The winter barley that we seeded this past season, we had no problem,” says Hodgins, adding that some growers could drive out with their tote bags, and fill the loader from there. “The winter wheat that we seeded in Hanover this year for the same grower, they had their own bulk wheat and they were treating it as they were loading it into our truck and from there, it was loaded into the aircraft.”
In two days, working with two aircraft, Hodgins and his crew air-seeded 78,336 pounds of winter wheat for that farmer, loading 1,800 pounds in two to three minutes using the 7.5 auger truck.
Last fall, Hodgins also seeded an additional 17,000 pounds of ryegrass into corn, and early last October, he flew 3,500 pounds of winter barley into a field of soybeans near Embro that had been planted on July 13.
“It would have taken twice the time on the ground loading,” says Hodgins, referring to the seeding operation near Hanover. “That first morning, by the time we got the farmer’s truck and loading system set up with the treatment, we didn’t get going until around 9:00, and then we flew until sometime around 1:00.”
The next day, they started at 8:00 and finished by noon. Without the new loader, they would have been back for a third day, no question, says Hodgins. Best of all, the loader can handle any dry material, whether seed or fertilizer. The stainless steel design makes clean-outs simple, and removes any concerns about long-term rust.
“Last year (2015) was also the first year to do some fertilizer into corn in early July to replenish some of the N-loss with all the rain in June,” Hodgins recalls. “We used a truck on a fertilizer tender, so it was the same slow process where we had to back-up. So it took us an evening and a morning to get about 300 acres done, whereas we probably could have done it all at once with this new system.”
The auger truck also helps protect grass runways. A few years ago, while attempting to load his plane near Exeter, the weight of the farmer’s truck with the bulk seed actually rutted the strip. With his current configuration, the farmer can stay on nearby pavement or gravel roads, fill Hodgins’ loader with a couple of thousand pounds of seed, and avoid any damage to the grass runway.
“That way, if the farmer has his own grass strip or we just go to a grass strip or main airport, we can just drive right to the site,” he says. “It’s easier for transportation and the unit has load cells on it so we know exactly how much we’re putting into the airplane. The application rates and timing are still a bit of a challenge with some of the growers, but the cover crops seem to be the next wave.”
As he looks towards the 2016 growing season, Hodgins wants to prepare for more queries about cover crops, including inter-seeding into corn, which is another growth market. One grower, who had Hodgins seed his winter wheat, tried inter-seeding ryegrass into his corn in late September, last year. By all accounts it turned out to be a good catch, partly due to the open fall of 2015.
The other challenge for Hodgins is adapting his understanding of handling different dry materials. It’s not just the mass of the material, it’s also its volume or the bulkiness.
“You might get one type of fertilizer that fits in the hopper, and the next only fills half of the hopper or another that you can’t fit it all in,” he says. “I think we were getting just under 1,800 pounds of winter wheat in the plane but with winter barley we could only get about 1,500 pounds because it’s so bulky.”