Even before he injured his back so badly he couldn’t sit on a bouncing tractor, Tony Brummelhuis wondered why farmers felt the need to cultivate. Now that he’s put residue managers on his drill to move trash from the seed row, he sees even less reason to till the soil.
“It’s ridiculous, the time we spent working the land, cultivating it and then floating it level again,” says the irrigation farmer from Rainier, near Brooks. “We need a smooth field to run on, so why work the land? The number one reason is to make the seeder work.”
Brummelhuis’ answer to the challenge was a used John Deere 750 disk drill. He direct-seeded a quarter section of Roundup Ready canola into wheat stubble, “just to see what sort of challenge we were up against.”
Things worked well, and although he says he’s still fighting that canola, Brummmelhuis has direct-seeded the whole farm since then.
“I don’t need to work the land any more,” he says. “My seeder can seed into anything. It leaves the land nice and smooth and I don’t have to bounce around on a tractor, working the land.
“The biggest thing, though, is that I won’t see soil blowing on my land. “I’ll do anything to prevent that, and it will happen if you don’t leave a cover on your land.”
Direct seeding under irrigation hasn‘t been entirely without problems. Brummelhuis has grown pinto beans, although they’re risky because of his location on the other edge of the bean-growing area.
“Last year, I zero-tilled some beans into grass seed stubble,” he says. “They froze out on June 17th. Zero-till is always a little cooler than worked land, so that grass sod could freeze hard.”
As a first line of defence, Brummelhuis is choosing other crops that are a little less susceptible to frost damage than beans. He has grown seed canola and now he has some timothy. He limits it to a fairly small part of his land so the stress of haying export quality timothy doesn’t become too much.
Millet is also less likely to freeze because it’s seeded late, in June. It needs warm soil, so Brummelhuis seeds it into a dark stubble like flax which allows the soil to warm faster than a light-coloured residue.
Brummelhuis has modified the drill to reduce the risk of frost damage to susceptible crops. He’s added residue managers in front of each disk opener and a trash manager behind. Residue and trash managers are star-shaped wheels that run along the soil surface moving loose material on the soil surface. Brummelhuis uses two of them, one ahead of and one behind the disks to clear a 5 inch strip for each pair of seed rows.
Tony's John Deere 750 seeding into wheat stubble
None of the equipment companies puts residue managers on their drills, he says. “They really are designed for corn and soybeans that have large seeds that are placed much deeper than our small grains. You don’t have to worry as much about hair-pinning with big seeds. But for us, hair-pinned trash leaves our small seeds either too deep or on top of the soil That’s one reason to use a residue manager, even though hair-pinning is less of a problem than it used to be. After a few years of direct seeding I’ve found my soil is firmer than it used to be.”
His other reason for the residue managers is to cut the risk of frost damage. Early in the growing season, bare soil warms up during the day and radiates heat at night. The heat radiation can be enough to warm air close to the soil and protect seedling from frost damage. Soil covered with residue is better insulated so it warms more slowly in spring and it doesn’t give off heat at night. Brummelhuis believes the 5 inch wide strip is enough to protect the seedlings.
Maintaining the right down pressure on the residue managers was a challenge for the farmer-designer. He adapted some of the ideas Dwayne Beck has tried at Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, South Dakota and used a parallel link for each residue manager to ensure the star wheel runs along the ground surface and doesn’t dig too deep or miss. It works well but it raises the costs: adding the residue managers raises the cost of the drill by around $1200 per opener.
Tony's residue manager with parallel link
Brummelhuis uses a narrow packing wheel right behind each opener to press the seed into the moist soil at the bottom of the furrow. (Brummelhuis farms irrigated land, but in southern Alberta, water isn’t available until mid-May, some weeks after seeding begins.) A trash manager follows behind and pushes loose soil over the seed.
“You want good seed to soil contact,” says Brummelhuis. “But loose soil is better for the shoot to grow through.”
The seeding system has worked well for all the crops Brummelhuis has tried. He’s a great believer in designing a rotation and sticking to it.
“It’s my way of hedging,” he says. “A good rotation can protect you from disease, help you with weed control and it helps you in marketing your crops. There’s no way you can predict some of the things that affect the market – a change in policy in Japan, or a disease problem somewhere in the world. But, if you stick to the rotation you need for productivity, you’ll be able to weather the downs and catch some of the ups in the market.”
Thanks to direct seeding, Brummelhuis needs less equipment and he gets his own farm work done more quickly than when he cultivated everything. That allows him to do quite a bit of custom work without his own crops suffering. Economics are now his main reasons for direct seeding, though.
Canola seeded into wheat stubble with Tony's drill
“Water doesn’t run off my fields any more,” he says. “And, I don’t spray my grain crops for wild oats any more. If you start out with clean fields, wild oats aren’t a problem in zero till. Farming the old fashioned way, working your land, you’ll fight wild oats for the rest of your life, but you’ll never get rid of them. It’s a losing battle too because chemical resistance is getting worse all the time.”
”I’d never go back to farming that way. With zero till, I’ve lessened my chemical use and my soil is getting better with less risk of erosion.”
“Everything has to come from the soil. What’s it worth to have better soil to pass on to the next generation? It’s everything.”