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Seeding canola with planters

Two Westlock, Alberta farmers had a good harvest and saved costs after 
seeding their canola with a corn planter last spring

In 2014, two Westlock, Alberta, farmers cut their canola seed costs by $40 per acre by seeding with corn planters. They saw no yield loss. Is this the new way to go?

At a Westlock seminar last winter, agronomist Geoff Doell of GROWTH Agrinomics Inc. told farmers that seeding canola using a precision vacuum corn planter can reduce seed amount needed to under one pound, just one fifth of recommended rates.

Richard Seatter and his son Luke were at the seminar. They crop 900 to 1,500 acres of canola a year. They’ve always used an airseeder, planting the recommended five pounds per acre of seed. They passed the information on to their friend and neighbour Loren Koch.

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Koch was laid up with a torn tendon when Seatter told him what he’d heard. With extra time on his hands, he too researched all he could find. “I can’t afford not to do this,” he concluded. By spring, the Seatters and Koch had each purchased a Monosem precision vacuum planter. The Seatters seeded their entire canola crop with the machine, also seeding some test strips with their air seeder. Koch wasn’t quite as aggressive, seeding half of his acres with the new planter.

At harvest, the Seatters found no difference in yield between the two methods. Koch felt the seeded-planted canola yielded slightly more.

Seed mortality

Traditional canola seeding recommendations of five pounds per acre are made based on a seed mortality of 50 per cent or more. Some seeds are broken in the process of seeding, others land too deep or too shallow. Using the Monosem planter, the Seatters found seed mortality reduced to just 15 per cent. “The corn planter is very precise, that’s the biggest thing,” says Richard Seatter. The seeds always land where they are supposed to. “There’s a bigger healthier plant because they are not interfering with each other,” Seatter adds.

Agronomist Geoff Doell says that one of the big benefits of a precision planter is that it is capable of seed singulation. Seeds planted too close to each other lead to an allelopathic battle between neighbouring plants. (Allelopathis is the suppression of growth of one plant species by another due to the release of toxic substances).

“Allelopathic interference essentially is like ‘elbowing’ their neighbor out of their growing space which is a huge waste of nutrient resources and time. It renders a “winner of the battle” that is weak and spindly in nature,” Doell explains. “By gaining seed singulation we avoid this battle, resulting in more robust plants that have thicker stems, endure more stresses (root maggots, sclerotina, lodging resistance, etc.) and take no longer to mature than thicker seeded stands do.”

The Seatters experimented with seed spacing between one and four inches, at a row spacing of 20 inches. Most of the crop was spaced 3.4 inches apart, using one pound of seed per acre. The savings in seed cost that first year paid for a large part of the new planter.

They tried four different canola varieties, with no real difference in yield. This spring they will seed the entire crop using three-inch spacing. “You don’t want to get closer than that or the plants will interfere with each other,” Seatter says.

Koch used a space of 1.8 inches between seeds, using 1.7 pounds of seed per acre. He plans to reduce seeding rates this coming spring. Depending on the machine used, row spacing can be up to 30 inches. That tends to be a bit too wide, Doell says. “I prefer the 15 to 20 inch row spacing that can be done with minor modifications.”

Plant health

Increased spacing between plants results in a longer flowering period because of the branching. Heat blast isn’t as much an issue because of the longer blooming, say Seatter and Koch. Plants are bigger with more uniform pods. More room per plant generally produces a healthier, more robust plant with less lodging and more resistance to diseases such as sclerotina.

The Seatters didn’t spray as much fungicide as usual and their yields didn’t seem to suffer. Koch didn’t spray at all on the fields he seeded with the corn planter. Both admit that last year’s dry conditions may have helped results.

Precision-planted canola is not immune to disease, Doell says. It is vital for growers to continually assess the risks and take appropriate action. While the larger plant stems make it almost impossible for sclerotina stem rot to entirely cut off the nutrient supply on a main stem infection, infections can still happen. “It’s a game of size and ability. With conditions that favour development of disease we occasionally do see branch infections which usually are not as large of a contributor to yield loss as main stem infections.”

Doell insists his clients use seed treated with Lumiderm or Fortenza to enhance insect resistance to both flea beetles and cutworms. “We cannot afford to lose very many plants when seeding this low,” he says.

“The biggest attraction for me is getting canola seeding going a week to 10 days sooner than I used to,” Koch says. Having the added machine enables him to seed canola up to two weeks earlier.

“Being able to clear the residue in front is a big plus” Seatter says. The Monosem planter has a residue manager in front of the seeding disk. Crop residue is often a big problem in heavy, thick cereal crops in the Westlock area.

The Seatters found the corn-planter seeded canola easier to swath. The stems were stronger and didn’t lean. “It is a little more critical to watch your stubble height, so you have enough stalks to hold the swath,” Koch says. Pods tend to be lower on the plant, too.

The downside

Would there be a reason not to embrace this new technology? “You need another machine with another man if you seed canola at the same time as the cereals,” Seatter says.

Most corn planters don’t come with the ability to place fertilizer, and one pass planting and fertilizing is generally not practical. Seatters and Koch apply a near complete blend in the fall and place a small amount of liquid phosphate with the seed. Doell says the liquid phosphate gives that extra “pop-up” needed in cold spring planting conditions. “The liquid kit also affords us an improved economics approach to any micros that may be needed on a field-by-field basis,” he says.

“A major draw back is a greater dependence on herbicides as the stand is not as competitive as a conventionally seeded crop,” Luke Seatter says. They will continue to assess seeding rates, weighing time of planting and weed pressure against seed savings. Luke likes having the option of using the airseeder too.

The Seatters and Koch both observed slower maturation in the lightly seeded stand. Koch feels that is more than made up with the ability to seed earlier. Doell’s clients, who’ve used the technology for four years, report no significant maturity changes.

“It takes a fair amount of abdominal fortitude to go through the learning stages as the crops are thin until about mid June; until growers learn the best husbandry of pest management and faith in the ‘weed-like’ will-to-live that canola possess,” Doell says. “I find that within one to two years, those who go this direction are comfortable with their decision.”

These Westlock farmers are convinced of the usefulness of the corn planter but are still open to different ways to use it. “We are just starting to learn how to best grow canola,” says Richard Seatter.

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