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Does The Drill Really Matter?

I have been very fortunate to spend the past 20 years conducting agricultural research trials, looking at variety and herbicide comparisons, but also conservation tillage and its associated management practices. Producers have spent a lot of time worrying about certain details of conservation tillage, especially which opener to use. I would never waste my time sweating which openers to use. I told producers who were worked into a panic about what type of air drill to buy or openers to use to look around the area they live in. In my area, around Spirit River and Rycroft, we had producers who were zero tilling with John Deere, Concord, Flexi-Coil, Morris drills and yes even Haybuster 8000s, and they were all successful at it.

It was not a case of one particular drill being better than the others. These producers were successful at zero tilling because of the overall management strategies they employed, not because one drill was so much better than the rest. Of course I was branded as a heretic for this opinion, but it wasn’t the first time in my life and I don’t generally get bothered by things like this — especially as I matured and became more confident and comfortable with my agronomic skills and knowledge.

Over the 20 years that I have worked doing field trials, I have conducted about 550 mostly field scale, replicated research trials, so I have seen and tried a lot of different things. I remember when the “in” topic was air drill openers, and colleagues speaking at extension workshops would walk up to the front of the room with an armful of openers. A hushed silence would come over the room as if the key to all things agricultural was finally going to be revealed to us.

By this time in my career, after being mentored by people like Murray Hartman, Elston Solberg and Tom Jensen, I knew what was involved in conducting a proper research trial. In this case, to evaluate openers you need a number of openers (no problem so far), one or more crops to compare (again pretty easy), more than one site to conduct the trial at (again simple) and then to do the trial for more than one year. Combined, you end up with a real monster of a project. To compare five openers, two crops, two sites and three replicates and do the project for two years is beyond the scope of most groups like CPCS.

Trials that involved 60 strips that have to be weighed are a challenge. I once did a field scale trial that required the weighing of 45 strips and I almost went insane with that one! So opener testing was always considered to be part of the “Holy Grail” of knowledge that producers wanted us to acquire. Again, being the wingnut that I was, I couldn’t see how anyone could conclude there was one magic opener and one magic air drill brand that was significantly better than the rest on the market. Plus you also had the challenge that, like crop varieties, new openers were being released about as often as one would change their socks!

So it was such a great relief that one year those wonderful engineers at AFMARC (the successor to PAMI) conducted such a trial with five double shoot openers, on wheat and canola, at two sites over two years. Their conclusion: There was no opener that was significantly better than the rest. One was better with one crop at one site in one year but worse in the next case. It made me confident that the opinion that I had formed to start with — that most of these air drills and openers are generally good performers — was valid and correct. The caution was that producers run into crop performance issues when they let the openers get worn out and don’t bother to replace them frequently!

The cornerstone of my work has always been to conduct my trials using the proper methodology. Replicate the trial, eliminate all external factors as sources of error, use a weigh wagon, collect sub-samples for moisture, dockage and grade data, and bring everything to a standard moisture content and zero per cent dockage when discussing yield results. I know from doing my own surveys that even the best producers can’t accurately guess crop yields by looking at a crop mid to late season. Visual comparisons are useless. Doing a comparison without replicating it and collecting yield data is pointless.

Garry Ropchan is the research coordinator with the Central Peace Conservation Society in Grimshaw, Alta. Email him at [email protected]

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