Drills: Big and slow versus small and fast

The conventional idea of big is better is challenged by European engineers who focus on smaller equipment

BRANDON — There’s a growing debate between proponents of big drills pulled at a relatively low speeds and proponents of small drills pulled at high speeds.

Conventional thinkers advocate the type of wide low-speed drills that have evolved in prairie conditions over the past three decades.

On the other side of the debate, a small but dedicated group advocates for narrow high-speed drills developed more commonly in Europe.

Both sides are digging their heels into the soil in a mighty tug of war for farmers’ dollars.

One of the new flag bearers in the smaller-faster-better camp is Willie Gilbert. Gilbert established Euro-Scot Equipment in Brandon in 2013 to bring in high quality Scottish and European farm equipment to Western Canada.

“We sell Pottinger high-speed seeding equipment. Our customers typically seed between nine and 10 m.p.h. They do cultivation and seeding all in one pass.

The Pottinger concept is similar to that employed in the new Horsch seeding equipment. However, while Horsch is a first-generation company, Pottinger is an older manufacturer, based in Scotland, that’s been family owned for 170 years.

Horsch’s Jeremy Hughes expands upon the concept behind the new style of seeding equipment.

“The idea is to prepare a high quality seed bed and sow the seed at the same time. It’s a different mindset compared to either seeding into stubble as in zero till or working the ground many times in advance to prepare your seed bed.

“We prepare the soil consistently across the entire width of the machine in front of the openers. Let’s be clear about it. This isn’t the same as putting residue managers in front of each opener row. This is actual tillage. And it’s not row-by-row like you have in strip tillage. It is the entire width of the implement.

He says some farmers are starting to question the concept of single-pass seeding and are putting more emphasis on getting the best possible seed placement, even if it means doing some seed bed preparation.

Hughes says conventional field logistics are being challenged. Producers with 90- and 100-foot drills have to invest in 600 horsepower tractors. He says when they hit a wet spring, their 1,000 bushel tanks run at half capacity and the rigs still sink into the mud.

He says smaller, lighter equipment gives farmers a better chance to get their crop in the ground. The other factor is cost per acre. Hughes says big drills may show benefits on paper while it’s still fairly new, but the real cost per acre doesn’t show up until you go to sell or trade.

“If you take a big hit trading or selling, your cost per acre takes a big jump. We’re seeing it now in the Dakotas and over in the corn belt. There’s a lot of 120-foot planters, 48 rows, 30 inch spacing. They’re just sitting for sale these past few years. They’re priced to sell but they’re not selling. The point is, you really don’t know your cost per acre until you’re done with that machine.”

Garth Massie, agronomist with Morris Industries agrees there may be logic to the smaller, faster design concept.

“It’s an interesting idea and it’s an important trend, but seeding at that speed, even with a disc system, there’s bound to be more vibration and bounce that will impact uniform seed depth.”

Massie says the horsepower argument put forward by the small-fast group isn’t necessarily valid. He says the faster 60-foot Razor disc drill can seed the same number of acres per day as the 90-foot Contour hoe-drill.

However, there is no change in the tractor requirement.

Massie says some of the world’s best examples of big drills evolved in response to circumstances here on the Canadian Prairies.

He says Morris, ConservaPak, Bourgault, Seed Hawk and Seed Master all have their roots in Saskatchewan.

“The large drills grew out of the need to improve productivity over broad acres. The main factors are continuous cropping with a wider range of crops, larger farm sizes and a greater need to finish seeding within that critical window,” explains Massie, adding that farmers on the Prairies ideally want the crop in the ground by the end of May because our crops are bred for a 100-day growing season.

“When seeding is late, it compromises your weed control program, disease and insect control, yield volume and grade. It’s imperative that seeding takes place in a timely manner, and on the Prairies, that means big air carts and big drills.”

He points out that Australia basically has a two-month seeding season. Regions in the States that have a blend of winter and summer crops have two and even three seeding windows. Farmers on the Canadian Prairies lack that luxury. Early May is better than late May.

Farmer preference for hoe openers over discs has also pushed the industry toward big seeding equipment.

Massie says when a hoe opener travels faster than 4.5 m.p.h., it can throw a lot of soil over on to adjacent seed rows, thus retarding emergence. The need to keep the speed below 4.5 m.p.h. has forced manufacturers to increase the size to compensate.

Addressing the concern that big equipment doesn’t cope well with muddy conditions, Massie says it resolved that issue.

“Before, the weight was split between the front castor wheels and gang packers at the back. These days, the weight is carried on the individual packers behind each opener, and they’re spread uniformly across the width of the drill.

“You no longer see farmers with our machines getting stuck with the drills. They might still sink the air cart or the tractor, but nowadays there are tracks for the cart and the tractor. My observation with the equipment on our own farm is that once we went to duals on the cart, it’s a much bigger footprint and they stay on the surface a lot better.

“I do, however, think it’s a fair comment to say the large drills don’t hold their value as well as smaller units. The 80-foot and larger systems are purchased by large farmers. They only buy new machines and they often by multiple units.

“When the dealer takes those large seeding systems on trade, it’s unlikely that he has a buyer lined up. He cannot afford to put a high value on that large system. Even for a 5,000 acre farmer, that used 90-foot drill is excessive. Plus he’ll need to buy the tractor to go along with it.

“And that 90-foot drill belongs in wide-open, flat farming country. We have vast tracts of Western Canada with all kinds of potholes and rock piles and other obstructions where a 90-foot drill just does not fit. When you start climbing steep hills you’ll maybe want a smaller drill.”

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