Harvey Abbott farms with his son-in-law Brian Vantol in the thin black soil zone north of Killam, Alberta. They farm 1360 acres of clay loam with patches of heavy clay and solonetzic soils.
It was the rising cost of machinery that motivated Harvey to try direct seeding. “We were putting a lot of hours on our tractor,” said Harvey, “So, we thought we’d give zero-till a try.”
“In 1994 we hired someone to seed,” says Harvey. “For the first two years, we seeded with a Great Plains double disc. But, we had lots of trouble with hair pinning seeding canola, especially when the straw was tough.”
“The third year, we got Atom Jet openers and put them on our John Deere LZB hoe drill. We were quite happy with the Atom Jet openers. Unfortunately, poor trash clearance on the drill gave us trouble with plugging.”
“We came across a set of used Versatile Novel 2200 hoe drills. They have heavier shanks than the John Deere and a little more clearance with more room between the rows of shanks. The Versatile has 7.5 inch spacing across 35 feet of drill.”
Harvey Abbott and his modified Versatile drill
“We are happy with the Atom Jet openers,” says Harvey. “They give us a ¾ inch spread that is wide enough to make a black band of exposed soil which warms up quickly in the spring. It also leaves the seed row in a hollow that collects the rain if you get a little shower.”
“The Atom Jets don’t dig up a lot of soil,” explains Harvey, “So they leave the field quite smooth. They have carbide tips and last well. The ones we got in 1996 lasted 8 years seeding 1360 acres/year.”
The Atom Jet openers
Harvey first used liquid fertilizer with the double disc and was happy with it so he continued using it with the Versatile drills. “We made holders on the shanks for the hoses that apply the liquid fertilizer,” says Harvey. “As the soil flows back over the seed to cover it, the liquid fertilizer mixes with the soil and flows over top. The seed has already been covered with soil by the time the liquid fertilizer is applied so there is some separation from the seed.”
“We put down 60lbs (actual) of nitrogen and 25 lbs (actual) of phosphate on our canola and CPS wheat for a total of 24 U.S. gallons of product/acre.”
“Liquid is a cheap application system that is easy to handle,” says Harvey. “It also allows us to seed with this seeder in one pass and to use the entire drill box (95 bu) for seed. The drawback is that liquid fertilizer is between $3-$5/acre more expensive but with just one pass the cost evens out.”
Harvey sources liquid nitrogen from Fort Saskatchewan and liquid phosphate from Standard. “We blend it ourselves which can cut some of the cost,” says Harvey. “We have a tanker truck we use to haul it and plastic tanks where we store it on-farm. We’ve never stored it over the winter but we’re thinking of trying it. We’d like to get a bigger tank first.”
“A week before we start seeding, we get one load of phosphorus and one load of nitrogen. We blend the nitrogen with the phosphorus as we use it and then pick up another load or two of nitrogen while we’re seeding.”
Harvey grows crops that produce less residue to work with his seeding system. “We try to grow short varieties,“ says Harvey, “Our rotation is canola – CPS wheat – peas – CPS wheat. It seems to be a good rotation for us. It is important to go from a cereal to a pulse or an oilseed. We can control the volunteer crops better and we cut down the risk of diseases.”
Like many direct seeders, Harvey is convinced of the value of a pre-seed herbicide application. “We use ½ L glyphosate for our pre-seed burn,” says Harvey, “which is very important, especially to control shepherd’s purse and stinkweed. We go in 1-3 days before we seed and spray. When we seed wheat, we’ll mix in Express with the glyphosate to control hawksbeard, sowthistle and dandelions. Once a person has been in zero-till for a few years, these weeds seem to be the problem.”
Residue management is critical to the success of Harvey’s seeding system. Harvey has modified his 8820 John Deere combine with a Redekop chopper and a chaff spreader.
“We straight cut the stubble at 8 inches to accommodate the 7.5 inch spacing on the seeder,” explains Harvey.
“We heavy harrow our wheat stubble to help manage the residue,” says Harvey. “The first five years we did it in the spring. It seems like until you have a trash cover, the ground will crack and dry out in the spring. Once we had a mulch, we started to heavy harrow in the fall to spread the straw.”
“On fields where heavy straw is a problem, we do a second operation of heavy harrowing which seems to take care of the residue.”
“We straight cut most of our crop and often use pre-harvest to help with dry-down,” says Harvey. “We don’t own a swather so we put the money into spray.”
“We run a custom spraying business that works well with our farm operation as we can use our own spray planes or high-clearance ground sprayers.”
“We pre-harvest our wheat and Argentine canola and then go in and straight cut it,” says Harvey. “We put ½ L glyphosate on with the plane so we don’t leave any tracks.”
Harvey has had good results straight-cutting canola. “We spray with glyphosate when the canola is a bit greener than when we would swath,” Harvey explains, “and in three to four weeks, the crop is ready to combine. It seems like the kernels are plumper with less green seed than with swathing because the crop has a better chance to finish filling.”
“Shelling losses from wind damage are the biggest risk with straight-cutting canola,” admits Harvey. “The risk is less if the canola is heavy, the crop canopy is knit together and the crop is harvested as soon as it is ready.”
Harvey has seen changes in his soil since he adopted a direct-seeded system. “According to our soils tests, our organic matter is slowly going up,” he says. “It seems like there is more moisture available, especially in the spring when you are trying to get a crop germinated. The mulch protects the ground and keeps it from drying out.”
Harvey direct seeds his canola
“We have some patches of heavy clay but they seem to be more manageable with direct seeding,” says Harvey. “We also have solonetzic soils and have done some deep ripping on 600 acres to see if we could improve them. The potholes disappeared quickly in the spring so the drainage is definitely improved but we’ll have to wait to see the results. The ripping wrecked our mulch layer so we are starting over again.”
Harvey has made direct seeding work with on his farm. “Our chemical cost has gone up,” he admits, “but we’ve decreased the hours on our main tractor from 600/year down to 125/year.”
Harvey is looking for ways to improve his cropping system. “I’d like to get a seeder with better trash clearance and have the option to grow other crops,” says Harvey.
“The system I have has served its purpose. It is a cheap way to start direct seeding with a simple, low-cost machine.”