New system makes seeding non-wetting soils much easier

Kate PollardCountryman

Intelligent Tillage (iTill) will be the next buzz word on every grain grower's lips, especially in marginal years.

Pingrup farmer Paul Hicks, with help from industry players, has developed a steerable drawbar system so growers can seed into the moisture of the previous year's stubble.

For the past five years Mr Hicks has experimented with soil wetters, placing them on top, next to and below the seed in non-wetting soils.

When soil wetter formulated for lateral dispersion with residual characteristics was placed underneath the seed, Mr Hicks found it could aid in establishing a 'moisture zone' for the following year's crop.

Moisture accumulated over summer was available to seed into during dry conditions.

"We did a number of trials with three representatives. Where we put the soil wetter underneath the seed, there was an 18 to 20 per cent yield increase over the control," Mr Hicks said.

"We put it down to the fact that the soil profile didn't dry out as much underneath, as opposed to putting it on top when the season dried off in September of that year."

The germination was also more consistent because crops could access residual moisture.

However, Mr Hicks' challenge was to develop a system that could place seed into the moisture zone.

Help came in the form of agronomist Graham Laslett, from Combined Agronomic Service, Geoff Glenn, from Agmaster, John Hawkesford, from Chemsol Australia, and Nick Ross, from Precision Agronomics.

They came up with a hydraulic steerable drawbar that could track the previous year's stubble row using an intelligent paddle sensor and side banding seeding boots.

The tine of the seeder was placed 25mm to the left of last year's stubble row with minimal dirt throw.

A side-banding seeding boot developed by Agmaster was used to place the seed in the stubble, that also allowed liquids to be placed behind the tine, in furrow or both.

Placing soil wetter with the seed helped to set up the moisture zone for the following year and allowed access to fertiliser residue.

It took time to implement the system, Mr Hicks told farmers during a field day last week.

"You need to have your rows as straight as you can in the first year and when you pull into a paddock, you need to mark where you start because you need to start the same way the following year," he said.

"Don't skip runs - the bar needs to follow precisely what you did the year before. If you are one tine out, the whole thing doesn't work. iTill is a system approach that takes 12 months to set up."

According to Mr Laslett, iTill is an evolving solution where soil wetter will naturally end up where the crop grew the year before.

By putting seed into last year's root zone, Mr Laslett said tissue tests had shown phosphorous, potassium, nitrogen and sulphur readings were higher where soil wetter was active.

"What it means is hard to say, but what we are getting is consistent germination, growth and consistency in development of the crop across the paddocks," Mr Laslett said.

Micronutrients and fungicides can also be put out with soil wetter and the system has made weed control more reliable.

On heavier soils, Mr Laslett said crops were two to three leaves more advanced.

"All of a sudden it's gone away from being a fix for dry soils and non-wetting soils," Mr Laslett said.

"For seeding under limited moisture conditions there has been a dramatic improvement in emergences and early growth."

iTill will be available for sale next year in a limited release. The system includes a camera near the paddle to monitor soil throw and tine placement when in operation. It's expected to retail at $10,000 to $11,000.

Mr Hicks used the iTill system on a John Deere 9520T pulling a 61ft John Deere 1820 air drill.

Pingrup brothers Stephen and Darren Hawley tested iTill on their DBS bar for the first time this year.

Non-wetting soils have been a problem on 20 to 30 per cent of their farm.

While the Hawleys don't use soil wetters, they noticed the benefit of sowing into stubble rows after they went from nine to 12-inch spacings.

Where every fourth row lined up, the germination was much better than in the other rows.

After manually trying to make the bar stay in the row, they decided to look for an automatic solution and came across Mr Hicks' system.

"We used it for all of our canola and lupins this year which are hard to get up, and we got a really good germination," Stephen Hawley said.

They also use iTill in non-wetting areas for their barley and wheat programs. They turn off the system where soils are wetter or heavier.

Mr Hawley said it was applicable for anyone with non-wetting issues and for drier starts.

"Even if you only get 10mm of rain, you will wet up the inter-row better in soils that aren't so non-wetting and you can still sow into that row and get germination," he said.

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