Agronomy Library > Winter Annuals/Other

Are You Ready for Seeding
Author: Ron Heller
Date Created: February 21, 2005
Last Reviewed: February 22, 2007

With the harvest of 2004 still a miserable memory, many farmers are already in planning mode for the 2005 crop. Depending upon the condition of each field as winter struck last fall, there could be uncertainty about what will be required before being ready to seed. Not really knowing ahead of time what spring will bring, but based on the unfortunate harvest conditions much of the prairies endured last year, let’s take a look at some probable scenarios faced by growers come seeding time.

One of the main concerns will be residue management. The worry in this is that waiting for spring-combining conditions or otherwise dealing with unmanaged crop residue will consume precious time and interfere with other important field operations. As I see it, the problem is three-fold:

1. Unharvested crops: Standing crop that went down under heavy snowfall may be the worst situation, less so if it got swathed. The challenge will be to salvage yield, prepare the seedbed and still seed in a timely manner. In this circumstance a grower would normally have to forfeit plans for growing such crops as peas, canola, malt barley or wheat in favour of earlier maturing crops that can be seeded later. The risk is a delayed spring, particularly if it’s wet and cold, compounded if direct seeding is not practiced.

2. Poorly distributed crop residue: This is not always just unique to unfavourable harvest conditions. Many direct seeders have seen the value of replacing “primary” tillage with “premium” combine straw choppers and chaff spreaders. Unfortunately, the front end of many combines will still swallow up more than it can handle out the back. Chaff won’t move very far once dropped on the ground, and, in concentration can create poor seedbed conditions. Long, tangled, loose straw is a barrier for seeding implements so without preparation or time for proper fall work the pressure of spring work yet to be done is significantly increased for these fields. Heavy, tough residue conditions require extra attention.

3. Lack of direct seeding experience: For good reason, direct seeders have coined the term “residue management begins at harvest”. For the same reasons, a grower’s direct seeding system will only be successful if he learns to keep his crop residue “friendly”. This requires experience, patience and perseverance. First-time direct seeders may be tempted to go back to tillage. Bunching, clumping, raking, digging, dragging and plugging are frustrating and difficult to remedy, even with tillage.

Picture 1. Plugged air-drill in poorly distributed crop residue

For direct seeding, it’s much better to retain surface residue than attempting to work it in with tillage, or worse - burning stubble. With this in mind, let’s outline some tactical ABC’s that farmers behind the crop residue eight-ball could plan for this spring.

a. Heavy harrowing – This is a useful operation for emergent situations like poorly chopped, lodged or matted straw. Heavy harrows are not recommended for pea or flax stubble. Straw must be dry and brittle to avoid bunching and your tractor must be capable of pulling the harrows at 10-12 mph. Many manufactured models are available. They may be in stiff demand from rental agencies this spring so book early.

Picture 2. Heavy Harrow

b. Oscillating harrows – Sometimes referred to as “crazy” harrows, this harrow implement is designed to wobble through heavy residue while spreading it out and avoiding clumps. Slower than heavy harrows, it will handle wetter conditions and considerable amounts of windrowed straw, with patience. This type of harrow may be hard to find. Some model names are Victory, Noble & Co-Op.

c. Rotary harrows – (Phoenix or Phillips are the popular brands available in Alberta). Rotary-tine harrowing may enable growers to seed into heavy stubble or through lodged and matted straw by fluffing and drying it out. Uniquely designed to mulch surface residue and soil without clumping, the shallow mixing action of this machine minimizes soil drying and stimulates weed seed germination.

d. Baling or stacking – Removal of excess crop residue is an option. In some cases this may be better than harrowing to expedite a pre-seed burnoff or some other field operation requiring well-managed residue conditions.

e. Mowing or chopping – Some emergency procedures include flail and rotary mowers or swathing, cutting & raking, or otherwise windrowing the residue for pickup by a forage harvester with the spout removed.

f. Direct seeding – Minimizing soil disturbance, optimizing seed & fertilizer placement, and achieving field finish are equally important in direct seeding. My favourite rule of thumb is that narrow openers and wide row spacing provide peace of mind when it comes to residue clearance. Everyone’s system is a bit different but the focus is on how the seeding implement performs. Hopefully, growers facing difficult residue conditions this spring will have the confidence and experience required to make their equipment function well.

NOTE: My favourite direct seeding principle has always been that the first time through is the easiest. This is a direct link to understanding why standing stubble, well-distributed crop residue, and undisturbed soil are all essential elements for successful direct seeding. Undoubtedly, this is why no-till or zero tillage are popular terms used to describe a seeding system. They have proven we can forget about tillage!
Given the time constraints, cost of fuel, labour and equipment for tillage operations, growers should be asking themselves why they need tillage and if there is an alternative approach to be taken this spring. For example:

- Fall fertilizer not done? – Direct seeding provides almost unlimited options for single and double-shoot placement of seed and fertilizer. Can my fertility goals be achieved with one-pass seeding or does it require a separate operation?

- Cold soil? – Perhaps, but by the time it warms up enough to thaw and long enough to dry it is often time to seed. If I get an early start on cultivating the trash to warm the soil, will I have to do more later on for the weeds, and then again to bust the crust for seeding?

- Weed worries? – Doing a pre-seed burnoff with herbicide on undisturbed stubble is a proven method of controlling weeds and capturing the best that reduced tillage offers, including early seeding and saving soil moisture for competitive crop emergence. If weeds are growing, why wouldn’t the crop? Herbicides may save time and money.

The foregoing focuses on “avoiding tillage”. Even growers familiar with direct seeding in past years may be faced with unexpected difficulties, and certainly farmers who have relied on fall or spring tillage before seeding will confront considerable set backs when things don’t go as expected during harvest. A few more cropping strategies to consider as back-up before spring arrives are:

g. Short season crops - Feed barley, oats, or perhaps polish (B.rapa) canola if you can source seed and prepare for weeds, could be planted later and are reasonable choices.

h. Annual forage crops – There may be an opportunity for silage, green or yellow feed, etc. if livestock are part of yours or a neighbour’s operation. If a field has a water supply and good fences, grazing might pencil out in a pinch.

i. Chem-fallow or reduced tillage summerfallow – Less acres in crop could relieve the physical pressure of “need to seed”. Balance this with production budgets and cash flow, including less input costs and falling prices forecast for many of the cash or specialty crops, and there might be some positives.

j. Fall-seeding – Plan and prepare to seed a winter cereal or dormant canola. As with any of the above strategies, growing winter wheat, fall rye, winter triticale, or even fall-seeded canola are potential stress-releasers for the spring-time seeding crunch. Reducing tillage with direct seeding will enhance the success of these crops.

k. Rotate to perennial forages – Annual cropland can be switched into perennial forage in rotation with long-term payback for soil quality and lower annual inputs. Undisturbed, moist, weed-free stubble, without a “smother” crop or tillage, makes a perfect seedbed for establishing most grass and legume forage crops - even late into July with direct seeding. You’ll need to do some homework, but there is time.

Picture 3. Direct-seeded mixed forage into barley stubble (August 10th)

I wouldn’t want to end this discussion with more questions than answers, but if all that’s being planned on the farm this spring is firing up the tractor and hooking on to the cultivator, a grower should seriously question - what is being compromised? Let me therefore summarize a few things with a few more questions that I think farmers should be asking themselves before dashing out with the disc this spring:

l. What are my neighbourhood direct-seeders doing?
m. How many times can I afford to fuel up my tractor?
n. Do I dare start direct seeding for the first time this spring?
o. Can I modify my seeding/fertilizer/tillage implements for direct seeding?
p. Am I killing the weeds or just cutting them off, burying seed, and re-growing them?
q. Do I have time for fertilizer banding?
r. Is once enough to get rid of the straw?
s. Is my soil prone to erosion?
t. Do I want to get stuck?

Picture 4. This might be another reason for less tillage

u. Can I afford to reduce tillage? – Before confronting your residue headache with a cultivator or disc, check your soil moisture, fuel tanks, calendar, and labour resources first. Tillage does not respect the soil, and wastes moisture, time, and money!

Picture 5. Would you seed this field?

Finally, most farmers understand that, depending on the crop to grow and the seeding practice, many operational decisions that will need to be made about field work may not be clear until planting time falls at least within the 5-day weather forecast! But why wait ‘till spring before deciding what Plan A, B, or C should be? Do it now!

Spring Tillage Tips
v. Slow down
w. Stay shallow
x. Remove mounted harrows from the cultivator
y. Avoid: wet trash (late evening / early morning); cool days & wet soil; windy days & dry soil
z. Count the worms
Are you ready for seeding?
I’m sure there are more worries and more solutions than I have outlined herein. Did you know there is a website dedicated to helping farmers find out more about reduced tillage and direct seeding? ( I know there are 5 Reduced Tillage Agronomists, including myself, who are eager to listen and discuss what’s on your mind about spring 2005. Did you know they are linked to hundreds of experienced direct seeders in Alberta who are willing to share what they know about making reduced tillage work on their farm? Perhaps their knowledge could help you get ready for spring seeding.