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Air Seeder, Planter Or Both?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010
filed under: Planting Systems

The design of air seeders/air drills has always been geared toward high-seed-volume crops like wheat, barley, canola and beans. No company builds air seeders focused on sunflower, whose per-acre seeding rates are much lower and whose potential market is much smaller.

Yet a number of producers have, across the past 10-15 years, used air seeders to plant sunflower. And various manufacturers have responded by developing metering rollers and calibration recommendations to improve sunflower seed metering and distribution performance with their machines.

The most-common reasons cited by growers for using an air seeder for sunflower are (1) timeliness of planting, given the large number of acres they must cover, and (2) already owning an air seeder for their other crops and preferring to use it rather than purchasing a row planter.

And it does work. Whether planting a narrow-row solid-seeded crop or closing off half or two-thirds of the openers and planting in wider rows, many oil-type sunflower producers have enjoyed satisfactory yields through the years.

But it doesn’t always work as well as the sunflower grower would like. Depth control used to be a fairly common complaint back in the ’90s, i.e., a lack of consistent depth placement meant too much variance in seedling emergence. Another criticism of air seeders was inconsistency in metering and distribution — the result being either clumps or gaps of plants rather than a uniform distribution across the field.

That’s a concern that remains today. While air seeder manufacturers as a group certainly have made their machines more “sunflower friendly” than they were 15 years ago, uniformity of plant stand is still an issue for numerous growers.

Tim DeKrey, who farms near Steele in south central North Dakota, used to plant his sunflower with a row unit. Five years ago he switched to a shank-type air seeder — motivated primarily by his desire to get the crop in faster. Plus, he liked being able to put down fertilizer with the air seeder for a one-pass operation.

Now, however, DeKrey is planning to go back to a planter for 2011.

DeKrey either grows confection ’flowers or tries to produce large oil-type seeds for the dehull (kernel) market. “So getting a lower but uniform population is important, as I am trying to produce a crop to meet contract specs,” he notes.

Inconsistency of plant distribution is the main reason why DeKrey is heading back to a planter. While seed depth placement with the air seeder has been satisfactory, “the biggest frustration I’ve had is getting an accurate metering and distribution of the seed,” he says. According to his operator’s manual, the low seeding rate he needs for the sunflower population DeKrey wants is outside the range the manufacturer considers acceptable for this machine’s metering system.

“It’s been difficult,” he relates. “Kind of ‘hit and miss.’ We can go back to the same setting we used one year and were satisfied with, and not even be in the ballpark the next year. The idea is to seed a uniform population. But with an air seeder, often you settle for, ‘Well, it’s OK, let’s just go with it.’ ”

Skips have been a bigger issue than doubles for DeKrey, as those empty spots often contribute to more weed pressure due to the lack of plant canopy. Also, “if you have some sort of stand issue due to poor establishment or cutworm damage, it’s hard to determine what you have out there for a population if you’re considering replanting,” he notes.

Another factor, DeKrey adds, is the cost of seed. When using a row planter, his normal seed drop was 20,000 — and with that “we got good stands and consistent yields.” With the air seeder, “we had to go up to probably 24,-25,000 to get an equivalent stand.”

The Kidder County producer will continue using his air seeder to plant other crops (wheat, canola, flax). But he’s now in the market for a 12-row planter to put in his 2011 sunflower acreage. “To me, sunflower is a crop that should have a near-perfect stand to begin with,” DeKrey states.

Roughly 100 miles to the southwest, Lloyd Klein used both an air seeder (a John Deere 1895) and a planter (JD 1770) to put in his 2010 sunflower crop. Why? “Because we have a lot of ground to cover.” He blocked off two of every three seed rows on the 43-ft air seeder, so essentially ended up with an 18-row unit seeding in 30” rows.

While agreeing that in-row seed placement is never as consistent as with the planter, Klein says “the only real issue we had with the air drill was getting the seeds through the seed meter. Seed size is critical. You need to be using smaller seed size to get them through the drill.” The air seeder handled #4 seeds generally well, Klein says, but had problems handling #3 seed lots.

The Elgin, N.D., producer targets a seed drop of 20,500 to 21,000 with both the air seeder and the planter. While consistency of plant spacing is better with the planter, he’s been quite satisfied with the results from the air seeder. Klein says using the recommended small seed roller — plus tuning rings inside the meter — has definitely helped in that regard.

That, plus being able to put down dry fertilizer and anhydrous with his air seeder — and achieving quite comparable yields — has Klein planning to use his air seeder for ’flowers again in 2011. “I think it’s serving the purpose that we’re trying to accomplish,” he says.

Ron Seidel, who farms near Meadow in northwestern South Dakota, runs two air seeders — one a JD 1890 and the other a JD 1895. The 1890 plants in 15” rows, with the alternate openers used to put down mid-row dry fertilizer; the 1895 plants the sunflower on 10” rows.

Like most producers who use an air seeder for sunflower, it boils down to covering a lot of ground in a shorter time frame. The Seidels, who typically have between 3,500 to 4,000 acres of ’flowers, also run a 24-row JD 1770 planter set on 20” row spacings.

Is uniformity of stands the main issue with the air seeder? “Definitely,” Seidel replies. “As far as seed-to-soil contact, including residue clearance within the seed trench, we’re comfortable. We’re also comfortable with the closing and packing afterward, as well as depth control.

“But uniformity of seed distribution throughout the field is a disadvantage” compared to a planter.

Seidel, who farms in a rolling landscape, is doing an increased amount of variable-rate nutrient application. Along with yield history maps, his VRA equation takes into account soil type and elevation. “Fertility is such a big factor,” he affirms. “With the planter, we’re broadcasting urea for the most part.” The air drills allow mid-row banding, with urea being applied through one of the drills and anhydrous with the other.

The Seidel sunflower harvest was still under way as of early November, with the highest yield to date actually coming from an air seeder-planted field. They were just starting harvest of a 1.5-section field in which all three of their planting units were used. “So we should have a better feel (for comparative yields) when we’re done with that,” he noted. The Seidels’ typical yield goal is 1,800 to 1,900 lbs/ac.

Seidel has been thinking about transitioning completely to a planter for sunflower, but will delay that decision until after the completion of this year’s harvest. If he does opt to “retire” his air seeders on sunflower, he’d go with either a 24- or 36-row planter on 30” row spacings. Fertilizer application would be done in a separate operation in order to cover more acreage per day with the planter.

Up in north central North Dakota, less than 20 miles from the Canadian

border, Mohall area producer Jeff Oberholtzer planted sunflower with an air

seeder for the first time in 2010. He and his father, Jerry, were planning to use their new JD 1770 no-till planter for all of their ‘flowers this year, but consistently wet conditions kept them from planting half of their intended acreage.

Of the acreage they finally were able to seed, three-fourthswent in with the 1770. The Oberholtzers used their Bourgault 3310 Paralink™ hoe drill on the remainder (in 30” rows, having blocked off two-thirds of the row openers). Anhydrous went on at seeding, for a single-pass operation. (They applied liquid with the planter.)

While crediting the air seeder for allowing them to plant those acres, Jeff doesn’t envision using it again on ‘flowers unless forced to by another delayed planting season. “For uniformity, we like the planter way better than the air seeder,” he says.

Though he agrees that precise plant spacing isn’t as critical with sunflower as with corn, Oberholtzer emphasizes the benefits of uniformity of plant development and head size when it comes to spraying for insects, applying a desiccant and timing the harvest. “It just works better,” he concludes. — Don Lilleboe

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