The quest is on to improve rate of canola emergence

Canola seeds may be tiny, but they don’t come cheap.

That’s prompted more farmers to use row-crop precision seeders in order to get more bang for their buck.

There are many row-crop seeders on the market, but the problem is none of them do a perfect job, said Pipe-stone-area farmer Frank Prince, who offered his opinions at the recent CanoLABS event hosted by the Canola Council of Canada.

“All planters have their goods and bads, whether red, blue, or green — look at the big picture of what you want to do, and customize them to work in your soils,” said Prince, a Precision Planting parts dealer who does a lot of custom work with a John Deere 1780 he modified to seed canola.

Research shows canola emergence rates are a dismal 50 to 60 per cent when a typical air seeder is used to sow the crop, generally because of inaccurate seeding depth, rough handling of the seeds due to high air velocity, or poor singulation.

“If you’re planting canola, you’re basically a guinea pig,” said Prince. “There’s not one company out there that can say they’ve got a disc that has worked 100 per cent for one year.”

Seed monitors, too, have trouble with canola, he added. Brand new sensors may be 90 per cent accurate the first season, but trouble tends to add up over the years. If monitor numbers drop from 150,000 to less than 50,000, it’s time for an up-close inspection.

“It’s more of a glorified blockage monitor. When it reads zero, it’s definitely not seeding,” said Prince.

Seed population is also a matter of debate. With 15-inch spacing, Prince seeds at 260,000 seeds per acre, or six seeds per square foot, just over the crop insurance minimum of four.

“I’m not an expert,” he said. “There needs to be a lot of research on correct populations because some guys are seeding 200,000 an acre and others 300,000 an acre. What’s the right number? Nobody knows.”

Yield data is “all over the place,” and the main contributing factor seems to be weather, rather than seeder type.

“Seed your canola with your air seeder,” said Prince. “You’re going to get higher yields just by putting it in on the right day with the right amount of rain than by saving one or two pounds of seed.”

Andrew Dalgarno, who farms near Newdale, ran a small trial last year using a variety of row-crop planters.

“If you talk to corn guys, 97 per cent emergence means you did something wrong,” said Dalgarno. “Here we are in Western Canada… if we get 50 per cent emergence, we’re happy.”

His trials were designed to see if better depth control and gentler handling would boost emergence. Dalgarno used a variety of seeders, including a demo unit from Seed Hawk, a Bourgault 5710, and a John Deere 7300 vacuum planter. In the Seed Hawk plots, seeding rates were gradually stepped down from six pounds an acre to two pounds. Interestingly, each pound reduction in seeding rate resulted in the crop flowering one day later and fully maturing two days later.

“So by the time we got to swathing, there was 10 days difference from that six pounds down to the two-pound rate,” Dalgarno said. “Depending where you are, you might need to go at a higher rate to avoid fall frost risk.”

The planter plots had the lowest yields, but he said he believes that had more to do with delays in seeding, which resulted in missing some perfect rains early on. He added an expanded trial of more equipment is being planned for June 5 at his farm.

Todd Botterill, of Botterill Sales in Newton, showed off a Monosem row-crop precision planter that features a rotating steel plate that picks up individual seeds and holds them in place via vacuum pressure.

But even that cutting-edge technology has trouble keeping up with the demands of seeding 200,000 canola seeds per acre, he said.

The tiny hole sizes in the plate limit suction pressure, and high speeds in a rough field can lead to seeds dropping off the plate. What’s more, with just 120 holes on a plate, seeding at any faster than 4.5 miles per hour means the plate has to “zip along pretty good.”

Their latest improved plate is designed to seed up to 380,000 seeds per acre — roughly four pounds — at six m.p.h.

“Think of a planter as a hot rod,” said Botterill. “You can buy the basic unit, and then fine tune it with row cleaners, gauge or closing wheels or many of the other options out there. Our company looks at every planter as a custom build.”

Ron Thomson, a product specialist with Case New Holland, showed off the latest features on a 1240 split row planter with 31 rows on 15-inch spacing with hydraulic drive. Mainly used by U.S. farmers for corn and soybeans, it has gained popularity in Alberta with canola growers, he said.

The unit offers total electronic control of seeding rate, he said. Whereas an air seeder is metered for pounds per acre, the row-crop planter’s monitor can be set for seeds per acre using the number of holes in the seeding disc as a starting point. For canola, it uses a 140-hole disc.

Seeding canola at a rate of 209,000 seeds per acre means two-inch spacing. Verifying that is simple. After running for 15 minutes, use a ratchet strap to hold up a closer wheel and then count the number of seeds dropped in a row 34 feet and eight inches long, which translates into 1/1,000 of an acre.

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