Top Crop Manager

Features Agronomy Harvesting
Between-the-rows seeding opens door to big cost savings

Higher yields and easier field operations are also benefits.

November 20, 2007  By Top Crop Manager

6aCecil Reisner is among a small, but growing number of prairie farmers who are
taking a whole new approach to direct seeding this spring. For the second consecutive
year, Reisner will seed his crop between the stubble rows.

"Between the rows in that Black soil is definitely the best place to put
your seed – if you can do it. You get more uniform emergence because the
seed isn't mixed in with trash from the stubble row, which dries it out and
leaves weak spots in the crop that stay green. If there's a frost, you'd pay
the price," says Reisner, who runs a certified seed farm with his son Barry
near Limerick, Saskatchewan.

Seeding between the rows also means you can cut stubble higher and seed back
into it more easily – without tangling or plugging openers with residue
and making a mess of your seedbed, says Reisner. "That's a huge benefit
because there's a yield advantage with the extra snow catch you get in tall
stubble and the wind protection it gives your seedlings."


Higher yields in tall stubble
Ongoing research by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Swift Current, Saskatchewan,
found yields increased up to 10 percent when pulses, canola and spring wheat
were planted in 12 inch stubble compared to cultivated land. In 18 to 20 inch
stubble, the yield increase was up to 17 percent because of warmer plant temperatures,
reduced evaporation and the wind shelter effect of tall stubble in semi-arid

Until recently, seeding between the rows was impossible. There was no way to
prevent openers from straying into the stubble rows. Farmers with hoe openers
have been warned to cut stubble only as high as the row spacing on their drills
to prevent plugging. But that all changed when new technology, called the Smart
Hitch, was introduced by Straw Track Manufacturing in Regina, Saskatchewan,
in 2004. It attaches to the hitch of any Seed Master air-drill and keeps the
hoe openers positioned between the stubble rows. Straw Track expects at least
50 grain growers will seed with the Smart Hitch this spring.

The Smart Hitch features a sensor that feels its way along the stubble rows.
The sensor consists of two metal discs that roll independently along a furrow
from last year's crop, straddling the stubble row. When one disc drops lower
than the other on the furrow, it triggers an electric signal that activates
two hydraulic cylinders to shift the drill right or left, keeping the discs
running parallel and the openers aligned between the stubble rows.

"I was surprised by how well it works," says Reisner, who seeded
into 14 inch wheat and flax stubble with the Smart Hitch. "Everything was
straight between the rows and there was no plugging at all, even though the
residue was very thick after a heavy crop the year before. It left a really
nice field finish."

Cut costs at harvest up to 50 percent
Seeding between the rows "is a totally new area that holds great potential
because it ties into so many things," says Dr. Guy Lafond, a researcher
with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. "To
me the biggest implications are the uniformity you get by seeding into that
cleaner environment and the benefits at harvest when all of a sudden you don't
have to process as much residue through the combine because you can cut your
stubble a lot taller. Harvesting is the most expensive component of farming.
This could open the door to substantial savings."

Field trials by the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI) show cutting
stubble up to 20 inches compared to eight inches can increase the grain capacity
of a combine by about 50 percent. That, in turn, can cut field time, fuel usage,
power requirements and labour costs by as much as 50 percent.

"Seeding between the rows is one of the biggest things I've done in the
last five years that's making me money," says Greg Wolff, who seeded into
eight to 16 inch durum and canola stubble with the Smart Hitch on his 6000 acre
farm near Liberty, Saskatchewan, this past spring.

"With the savings at harvest from cutting taller and an extra foot or
two of snow catch, this is huge. A foot of snow equals an inch of moisture and
any gain in moisture is our number one goal because it leads to higher yields.
At a cost of $3000, it doesn't take long for this thing to pay for itself,"
says Wolff.

He managed to straight cut his stubble five to seven inches taller in 2005
and left some of his canola stubble three feet high. He has gone from about
50 percent standing stubble to 80 percent with the Smart Hitch. The remaining
20 percent gets trampled in the headlands by his tractor. "We stay off
the fields as much as possible to protect the stubble. The grain trucks and
carts stay at one end of the field and we only dump there," he says.

The year before seeding with the Smart Hitch, Straw Track Manufacturing advised
Wolff to straighten his rows with markers and set up tramlines. "I just
moved the two centre shanks on my drill out 1.5 inches to give me 15 inch spacing
instead of 12 inches on the centre run. The next year, I point the nose of my
tractor down that wider row and drive straight ahead. The Smart Hitch sets your
openers six inches over from last year's rows and you follow identical tracks
every year. It's easy," he explains.

A more expensive alternative to tramlines is GPS. "It helps you set your
rows straight that first year and you follow the old rows next year. GPS tells
me where to be each time I turn around and the Smart Hitch keeps the openers
out of the stubble. It works great," says Kevin Zepick, who seeded his
3000 acre crop near Kipling, Saskatchewan, with the Smart Hitch in 2004.

So many little benefits
Zepick was impressed by the smoothness of his fields after seeding into six
to 14 inch wheat, flax and canola stubble with the Smart Hitch. "Normally
you're crossing the stubble rows and dropping large clumps of straw all over
the field. That makes things really rough and can be hard on your equipment.
This is so smooth and lets you do a better job of swathing."

"There are so many little benefits of seeding between the rows that add
up quite a bit," says Paul Weber, who farms an hour south of Zepick near
Carlyle, Saskatchewan. He estimates 95 percent of his stubble was left standing
after using the Smart Hitch, compared to 50 percent without it. "Having
the old and new stubble all standing gave us extra swath support. It didn't
fall between the rows as much." And by cutting higher, Weber says he does
not need to harrow because there is not much straw to spread.

As more farmers embrace between-the-rows seeding, Lafond believes there will
be growing interest among researchers. "I'm positive we will uncover more
benefits. I know from experience, as you start doing research in a new area,
you uncover things you've never even thought about." -30-



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