Top Crop Manager

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No-till seeding into heavy clay

These Alberta farmers have developed a system to beat heavy soils.


November 15, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

Topics

6aHeavy clay soils present special challenges for direct seeders. Too wet, too
dry, too many hassles, these environmental conditions wreak havoc on the best
designed openers and seeding systems.

"The soil just doesn't flow around the opener very easily. The biggest
suggestion I have is to avoid deep banding fertilizer with the opener. It really
messes up the seedbed," says Brett Adams, a farmer from Munson, near Drumheller
in central Alberta.

Adams says that the deeper a side-banding opener runs when placing fertilizer,
the more it ends up leaving trenches in the soil. Those trenches are formed
because the soil does not fill in behind the opener, except on a few perfect
days when soil conditions are ideal. If the soil is too wet, it just stays where
the opener pushes it. Too dry and the soil fractures, bringing up lumps and
drying out the soil.

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Under these conditions, seed-to-fertilizer separation can suffer, resulting
in fertilizer burn, or the seed falling into the fertilizer trench. Either way,
stand establishment is compromised. Plus, the soil dries out more quickly, leaving
the field rough and the crop suffering.

At Standard, Alberta, 50km east of Calgary, grower Jackie Jensen has gone through
a few different seeding systems before settling on his current set-up. He now
runs a Flexi-Coil 5000 with a 3450 air tank. It is set up with a 12 inch row
spacing. Jensen says it has cost him a fair bit of money over the years to get
his system right.

Originally, the Flexi-Coil system had four inch shovels and four inch packers.
"We found out that we had way too much soil disturbance, so we changed
all the packers and openers. We went down to a three inch rubber packer and
have used two different openers over the last few years," says Jensen,
who seeds 2500 acres of wheat, barley, canola and peas, along with tame grass
for his large purebred Black and Red Angus herd. "Flexi-Coil helped us
out quite a bit to get the system right, and they were quite good about that."

When Jensen switched away from his sweep opener, he modified an opener system
to enable him to apply liquid fertilizer. He took a three inch Stealth spread
tip opener from Flexi-Coil, added a seed splitter that runs the seeds into two
rows, two inches apart. Then he ran a liquid tube down the back of the opener
so that liquid fertilizer was dribbled between the seedrows. As a result, the
fertilizer was placed on the same level as the seed, avoiding the deeper banding
of the fertilizer.

"In these heavy gumbo soils, guys are finding that they can't put the
fertilizer below the seed because it fractures the soil, resulting in a poor
seedbed," explains Jensen. "If the soil doesn't close up, it dries
out."

Jensen likes liquid fertilizer, believing it gives him better seed safety and
the liquid soaks downwards slightly so that placement is below the seed. With
liquid, he also avoids the problems with granular fertilizer bouncing into the
seedrow, which would have been a problem with the three inch opener that he
was using previously. "We were very successful with liquid fertilizer,
putting it between the split seedrow." However, he has moved away from
the system over the last three years.

"When the drought hit us, we decided in 2002 to cut back on our fertilizer
rates. Plus, liquid fertilizer was getting too expensive so we went back to
dry," explains Jensen.

For the last three years, Jensen has used a GEN 2-1/2 inch wide opener that
spreads seed and fertilizer over the width of the opener. With the single shoot
system, he now seed-places all his fertilizer on the same level. He is able
to accomplish this, without seedling damage due to fertilizer toxicity, because
he cut back his fertilizer rates. "We had more moisture in 2004, so I haven't
decided what we are going to do in 2005," says Jensen.

At Munson, Adams also made liquid fertilizer a key part of his seeding system.
"Fertilizer placement is so easily done with liquid fertilizer. I know
it is more expensive, but if you put the same amount of dollars in granular
and liquid fertilizer down, I feel I get just as good of performance with the
liquid on my farm," he explains. Nitrogen fertilizer rates range up to
100 pounds per acre, and he has not seen any problems with seedrow toxicity
using his system.

Adams uses a Concord drill with edge on shanks and low disturbance, six inch
McKay sweeps. The openers have a splitter that directs the seed to either side
in a paired row, while liquid nitrogen is dribbled down the middle of the opener,
between the seedrows – similar to Jensen's liquid system, only with wider
openers. Adams uses a 12 inch row spacing and six inch wide, flat-faced bias-ply
tires for packers.

"I pretty much tried everything invented," says Adams. "I did
some direct seeding plots with Alberta Reduced Tillage LINKAGES years ago, and
have demonstrated a lot of openers on my soils. I think I have a system that
works well for clay soils."

Rick Taillieu, an agronomist with RTL at Camrose, Alberta, says that many of
the heavy clay farmers who he has talked with place heavy emphasis on minimizing
seedbed disturbance – similar to the systems that Adams and Jensen are
using. "Many of our Farmer-to-Farmer network members indicated they are
using low profile sweeps or spread tips, and some are now using liquid fertilizers
as an easier method to achieve separation from the seed," he explains.

Adams says his biggest goal is to save moisture and he accomplishes this by
direct seeding into standing stubble, while avoiding deep banding of fertilizer.
His father used to direct seed with a discer back in the 1960s, and they have
been using an air-seeder since the early 1980s. With 2600 acres of wheat, durum,
malt barley, canola, peas, canaryseed, and flax, Adams has found he can make
his seeding system work for any crop.

Taillieu says that RTL's Farmer-to-Farmer network is designed to link farmers
together to talk about what works and what does not work to help farmers who
are currently struggling with direct seeding into heavy clay.

Both Adams and Jensen are undecided where they would improve on their systems,
once they feel their machinery needs upgrading. Both think disc openers and
possibly mid-row banding might be possible, however, they feel that the additional
maintenance costs with disc openers might prevent them from moving in that direction.

"My goal is maximum yield with minimum trouble. I want a simple system
that works in my soils," says Jensen. -30-