Research and grower experience suggests precision seeding can lower input costs and increase yields, at least potentially. Interest thus continues to grow, along with the variety of precision seeding equipment available. Price-tag numbers are not far behind, however.
Given the expense of precision seeding machinery, growers may need to do some hard ROI calculations to determine whether savings can actually recoup the expense in a reasonable time.
According to Jeff McGavin, an Ontario machinery dealer and chair for the Canada East Equipment Dealers’ Association, the significance of precision seeding is widely recognised by equipment manufacturers. This includes companies making full machines as well as aftermarket add-on equipment.
Most new planters, he says, come with a selection of precision tools, such as electric drives capable of on-the-go changes to seeding populations. Growers utilise the capability though GPS, and in conjunction with fertility and yield data, to maximise returns on productive areas, while saving on less productive ones. Further input savings come from row shut-offs designed to prevent seeding overlap.
They like to try to keep it as their brand. If they sell a John Deere tractor, they want you to have a John Deere planter
Manufacturers have also tried to improve precision technology use by relaxing compatibility restrictions – to a point, anyway. The software system used in a red tractor, for example, will still have some difficulty communicating with a green planter.
“They like to try to keep it as their brand. If they sell a John Deere tractor, they want you to have a John Deere planter,” says McGavin,
Other innovations include adjustable row spacing and speed. That is, planters which can change row widths, and operate two to three times faster than older models without compromising efficacy. An increasing number of downforce and soil coverage systems, plus a variety of other sensor technology, are also hitting the field to further aid emergence.
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Good emergence is a characteristic commonly cited as evidence of the benefits of precision planting technologies. But for Tony Balkwill, an agronomist and operator of Nithfield Advanced Agronomy – a 650-acre Ontario research farm – better data is required.
As a business, Balkwill says he has tested “everything that’s come out,” from variable-rate seeding and row-by-row swatch control to more advanced technologies, such as smart firmer systems that register soil analytics as the planter moves down the field.
His experience suggests individual row control and prescription-based seeding – which eliminate overlap and account for in-field growing condition differences, respectively – are the most effective ways to lower input costs.
Yield differences are another story, however.
Balkwill says his own comparisons between older style planters and new, comparatively tech-heavy models do not indicate planters to be the difference maker. The right kind of data is not always available from manufacturers either, which he feels is reflective of a general emphasis on marketing over rigorous research and development.
Most people think it starts with the planter but it doesn’t. It’s the last thing to look at to elevate your ROI
“Technology on a farm is a systems approach. If you do a poor job on your fertility, it doesn’t matter what you have. Unfortunately, most people think it starts with the planter but it doesn’t. It’s the last thing to look at to elevate your ROI,” he says. “If you don’t go out and compact the hell out of your farm, for example, you don’t need downforce.”
Even where a piece of planting technology effectively achieves the goals for which it was designed, Balkwill says sheer costs can – and do – make such innovations irrelevant for many growers.
Put simply, the cost completely negates the agronomic or economic return.
“You could spend an extra $ 2,000 per row…but at the end of the day, can you economically measure the return of that upgrade?” he asks, again reiterating other production factors might be more deserving of one’s attention.
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Balkwill is not alone in his questioning, nor his emphasis on other agronomic considerations. In wheat, for example, researchers from Michigan State University say precision planting might not offer enough of a yield boon to warrant the immediate replacement of old seed drills. As described in a 2020 extension article published by the institution, it all comes down to cost-benefit.
“A detailed economic analysis would be warranted. If the industry can come up with a planter that does an excellent job with singulation, depth control, row spacing and can plant multiple crops, farmers will be more willing to pay for it.”
In canola – a higher value crop compared to wheat – the geographical realities of Western Canada provide one more example of how precision planting and ROI can miss their mutual rendezvous.
Members of the Canola Council of Canada, that is, say precision planters can bring higher returns compared to the more commonly used air seeder machines. But the additional hardware of precision planters makes them significantly more expensive to operate per acre. They also do not allow fertiliser to be simultaneously applied, meaning growers need to make another sperate field pass.
Further meta-analyses of grower experience with precision planting equipment turns up many similar concerns. There are, however, plenty of cases where the opposite is expressed, with commodity value, farm size, and how such equipment fits into overall farm systems appearing as common considerations.
Indeed, many growers appear to have done the math, and been quite satisfied with the cost-benefit balance of precision planting technology.