Seeding rates unchanged over past 50 years

Research from the University of Illinois disputes the commonly held notion that farmers can catch up on seeding in a hurry with today’s modern equipment.

Darrel Good, an agricultural economist at the university, has analyzed 50 years of seeding data that shows little progress has been made in putting the crop in the ground faster.

He looked at weekly crop report data from the state between 1960 and 2011. The reports contain information on the percentage of the corn crop seeded and the number of days suitable for fieldwork each week.

Good used the data to calculate the average daily planting progress for the corn crop each year over the past 50 years.

The data shows that farmers were able to use modern equipment to plant 10 percent more acres per day in 2011 than they could in 1950.

“But since we’re planting more acres, the percentage of the crop planted each day was pretty constant over time,” he said.

For instance, the average planting progress in the 1970s was 4.2 percent per day compared to 4.8 percent in the 2000s.

“There might be a slight increase in our ability to plant the corn crop now, but it is by no means a large difference,” said Good.

“What most people miss when we talk about the big equipment is yes, the equipment is much larger, but the big planter has replaced three or four small planters,” he said.

Farmers have a hard time accepting the research results because there is a general perception that modern equipment has resulted in much faster planting.

“They don’t tend to believe it because you observe these planters covering hundreds of acres per day, but if you’ve lost 80 percent of the planters, then in total you’re not necessarily planting more,” said Good.

David Gullacher, president of the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute, said there is no doubt that technology has given farmers the ability to seed more efficiently.

Direct seeding has eliminated the need to till the soil, which used to happen up to two times in the fall and two times in the spring.

“You’ve just eliminated the need for some good (spring) weather,” he said.

Modern combines do a fantastic job of managing post-harvest field residue, which again has made seeding easier.

“The surface trash isn’t the challenge that it used to be,” said Gullacher.

And then there is today’s seeding equipment, which is much wider and more precise than what farmers used to operate, and there is a lot more horsepower dragging seeders across the field.

“All those things compiled together means you can narrow the seeding window,” said Gullacher.

But that doesn’t mean it is happening, because as Good pointed out in his research, farms may not have as many workers and machines as they had in the past.

“It’s not a limit-of-technology decision anymore, it’s a business decision,” said Gullacher.

Franck Groeneweg, a grower from Edgeley, Sask., is surprised by Good’s findings, but it reinforces an idea he has been contemplating lately.

He believes the future of farm equipment is a shift away from today’s massive drills and combines to small and nimble unmanned machines.

Instead of operating his 80-foot air drill, Groeneweg would prefer to have a collection of 10 eight-foot-wide unmanned seeders crisscrossing his fields.

“That’s where I would like to go,” he said.

He believes the weight distribution would be vastly improved in the so-called smart implements because there would be no need for a cab.

Groeneweg also likes the idea of relying on gravity to distribute the seed in the soil rather than air pressure.

Gullacher doesn’t know how close smart implements are to becoming a reality, but he knows through conversations with farm leaders that there is a growing demand for such products.

“It certainly should be obvious to innovators and machinery manufacturers that it’s being called for. We very definitely have heard that,” he said.

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