When Jeremy Hughes, product manager for seeding and planting implement manufacturer Horsch, makes the rounds to customer events, one of the questions he puts to attendees is this: can the air drill of today still be the implement of choice when farmers expect to grow 80-bushel-per acre canola?
“It takes 2.5 to 3.5 pounds of actual nitrogen to produce a bushel of canola,” he says. “That means we’re going to have to double our use of nitrogen urea to go from 40 to 80 (bushels per acre). Using the three-pound average that’s close to 525 pounds of urea per acre. We can’t build carts big enough to do that. The current technology has definitely got us from 20 to 40. So what’s it going to take to get us from 40 to 80? I think it’s got to be something different than what we’re seeing today with independent hoe drills and these big monster machines.”
Horsch is one of the manufacturers that currently build those “monster machines.” But it also produces planters, the row-crop farmer’s seeding implement of choice. And Hughes thinks that the planter may be one of the tools that Prairie grain growers will come to rely on more in the future as they chase higher yields.
“I’m not saying there’s a blanket solution. I’m just raising the question. How are we going to get to 50-, 60-, 70-, 80-bushel yields in the future with 40-bushel technology?”
As he spoke with Grainews, Hughes made his case for producers to take a closer look at chasing those yield numbers with a planter.
“We started back in 2016 with our Maestro planter, planting canola,” he says. “The marketing message was simple. Don’t sacrifice yield, but save half the seed cost. It was a pretty simple message we started with, but I’ll tell you over the past two or three years we’re starting to learn a lot more when it comes to a lot of factors. A lot of questions are now coming up about fertilization, nutrient management. Even single-pass seeding is starting to come into question.
“There’s kind of a new frontier opening up here and maybe some opportunities for change. And to push some yield barriers out there too.”
With any planter out there today, getting fertilizer in the ground is still going to take a second pass, which Hughes says has been Prairie farmers’ single biggest objection to planting.
“But what we’re seeing with the yield increases today, is single pass is also the Achilles heel when it comes to logistics and also from an investment standpoint,” he says. “Because the only way to get more efficient with single pass is to get bigger. We’re in the air seeder business too. We build some monsters of our own, but we’re really starting to question where the future of this is going, because bigger isn’t always better.”
A matter of logistics
Hughes notes that with a large cart on a big drill it can take up to two large trucks to keep it tendered.
“If you’re running let’s say, an 80-foot drill with a 900- or 1,000-bushel cart, it takes one guy in the tractor cab and one to two guys with tendering as well. Then you need one or two Super Bs. Today, with a planter, you have guys going out with a pickup truck and a liquid tank on the back for tendering liquid once or twice a day, real quick. So it’s a one-man show.
“And if I’m down three or four times a day filling up for an hour (with a drill), my efficiency level is down. I’ve experienced that with our own monsters in the field too,” he says. “One thing becomes more and more evident to me every year as I travel the world and see different cropping environments. No matter where we are in the world, we have a pinnacle planting date on spring crops for maximizing yield, and we have a 10- to 14-day window to get that crop in the ground to maximize yield.
“I see a lot of guys in Western Canada planting canola in the first and second week of June and wondering why snow is on the swaths and why yield is down.”
In Hughes’ view, abandoning the one-pass approach to seeding — which extends the time required due to the high volume of product that needs to be handled — may become inevitable as product use per acre continues to rise.
“With seeding only using a 40-foot planter we’re pushing 350 to 400 seeded acres per day, whereas it would take a much larger air drill to even get remotely close to 350 to 400, probably 70- feet plus with a big cart to get that same amount of seed in the ground (using a one-pass method).
“I would say a lot of our guys are planting anywhere from five to 7.5 miles per hour plus. And honestly, it’s probably more on the top end — 7.5 to eight. That’s where you start getting into some big efficiency in getting acres done per day. We have guys going into the field, putting a day’s worth of seed on and maybe having an extra tender in the field for liquid fertilizer and knocking out 350 to 400 acres a day with a front-wheel assist tractor.”
Hughes suggests just focusing on putting seed in the ground between the optimum dates and applying fertilizer before or after would reduce the time crunch and broaden the spring seeding window.
“It makes me ask the question, are we shortening it (the spring seeding window) ourselves?” he asks. “What can we do differently? That’s where we’re starting to see some guys thinking outside the box. I’ve got 10 to 14 days to get seed in the ground. My fertilizer can be variable.”
A planter can be equipped to put down a starter course, while the main fertilizer application is applied in the off-season or after seed is in the ground — depending on the crop grown.
“We have guys with a 40-foot (planter) putting in 4,000 to 5,000 (acres per year),” he says. “I’d say with the 60-foot we have guys doing 8,000 to 9,000. A lot of our guys are using an aftermarket attachment to offer a little bit of a sideband, like a little bit of nitrogen or an in-furrow starter.”
Of course, there are pros and cons with fall fertilizer applications. But Hughes wonders if as the average farm size and yields grow, will today’s one-pass approach remain manageable?
“That absolutely varies from customer to customer and climate to climate,” he says. “We have guys doing everything from spreading in the fall and incorporating with tillage to knifing in the fall with an air drill or anhydrous bar, to spreading and incorporating in the spring or doing some top dressing in-season in the crop.
“One of the big questions we’re starting to hear guys ask about single pass is, ‘How do I know in May what my nitrogen needs are going to be in July?’ We’re starting to see guys even do a two pass. Most farmers have self-propelled sprayers at 120 feet (booms). That’s one of the best top dressers you can have. We’re seeing that in corn and canola.
“The bigger farms get, the more they have adopted blanket approaches,” he adds. “Blanket approaches are not sustainably profitable. You have to pay more attention to detail.”