The story of zero till on the Canadian Prairies is one of technological innovation. Jim Halford was one of the movement’s leaders.
Nobody knew where zero till might lead when it was first considered in the 1970s. A small group of producers recognized that soil degradation was forcing them to change the way they grew crops, but best techniques remained a mystery.
Halford saw that specialized disc drills such as Haybuster, Pioneer and Yielder had problems. They were designed primarily for seeding winter wheat into dry, hard fields in the Pacific northwest states. Tremendous weight was needed to achieve penetration, requiring high tractor power. As well, they could sink out of sight in wet spring conditions.
Although disc drills had good seed placement, the traditional gravity-fed drills didn’t allow double shooting of fertilizer with seed, and field efficiency was limited by the size of their seed boxes.
After a few years experience with zero till on his farm at Indian Head, Sask., Halford realized the system had potential but would forever be relegated to small farms as long as it depended on disc drills.
He saw the challenge as merging the zero till concept with the product-handling efficiency of an air delivery system. That was his mindset in the winter of 1982-83 when he went into his shop and the University of Saskatchewan soil bin to develop what eventually evolved into the Conserva Pak air drill.
The first Conserva Pak made its debut at the 1984 Farm Progress Show in Regina. Also on display that year was one of the last of the big, dedicated zero till disc drills. It was 14 feet wide with gravity seed boxes and a tractor requirement of 300 horsepower.
In contrast, the Conserva Pak was 31 feet wide with dual knife openers to precisely double shoot seed and fertilizer with minimum soil disturbance, while packing behind.
The tractor requirement was only 160 hp.
The general reaction from farmers was that the marriage of air system efficiency and zero till seeding might be the breakthrough they needed to apply zero till to a broad acreage.
By the late 1980s, Conserva Pak drills were giving farmers across the Prairies a significant option, now that the elusive separation between seed and fertilizer placement was finally possible without high soil disturbance.
However, putting down anhydrous ammonia at seeding time was still taboo. Most people realized the potential efficiency but few thought it possible. The myth was that producers could not seed until five days after applying anhydrous.
Not everyone accepted the myth. Halford continued research and development on his drill, working with Westco and Ag Canada in the mid-1990s.
Together, they showed farmers how to safely place anhydrous ammonia 1.5 inches from the seed without risk, an accepted technique that thousands of prairie farmers practise today.
In 2007, John Deere decided the Conserva Pak concept was what it needed to expand into the ever-changing world of zero till equipment.
It bought the company from Halford and now markets the drill as the John Deere 1870 Conserva Pak.
Today, Halford continues to conduct agronomic research on his farm.
As the body of knowledge grows, zero till may continue to help producers reduce fuel and fertilizer costs while maintaining or increasing yields through soil improvement, moisture use and crop health.