At the cutting edge of seeding technology, there is a movement away from air seeders toward precision planting equipment delivering high-level accuracy in seed placement, spacing and depth.
While the air seeder transformed Australian cropping following their introduction a few decades ago, innovative farmers now see the new seeding goal as having absolute precision with every seed - regardless of the seed size.
One of the leaders of the new vanguard is Victorian cropper, Steve Lanyon.
Just 36, Mr Lanyon joined his parents’ Boort property after leaving high school in 1996 and soon after drought turned the enterprise toward conservation farming methods including controlled traffic farming (CTF), and later, a no-till approach, as they sought a way to lessen paddock damage and conserve moisture.
But to Mr Lanyon CTF and no-till are just a few of the many tools available to farmers.
Like most farmers, he is keen to reduce input costs and is focused on methods to maximise crop yields.
A few years back the Lanyons imported a used corn planter from the United States to improve results from their summer corn cropping.
Almost immediately this stimulated his interest in using the precision machine as the primary sowing tool for all crops.
“When we first started seeding corn with a John Deere planter we bought in from the States, I thought I've never had a crop come out of the ground so uniform,” Mr Lanyon said.
Technology wise, planters present a vastly different proposition to air seeders and are designed with single placement of every seed at the right spacing and depth (singulation) as the key feature.
They provide individual seed control for corn, maize and sorghum crops and have growing capabilities in other seeds such as canola.
Over the past few years it has become Mr Lanyon’s goal to develop a planter capable of doing every seeding job on Australian farms - including cereals - and that has seen him researching and developing systems and parts to adapt planters to the task.
After buying his first planter, further exploration led him to US company, Precision Planting, which develops a range of precision seeding technology for retrofit to major planter brands.
He then became a Precision Planting agent and has set about spreading the word on planting technology with his newly formed company, Spot On Ag, but also working to adapt the technology - with the Precision Planting’s imprimatur - to successfully plant canola and now, to resolve his cereal seeding goal.
It took four years working to perfect canola planting at low rates (just 1.2 kilograms a hectare) and he is now confident it is working “really well”.
“We are buying the best varieties on the market, spacing it correctly and with no overlap, so we are not wasting any seed.
“You just don't need 3kg/ha but the air seeders can’t get down to 1.2kg/ha rates,” he said.
“We are growing Roundup Ready canola which is about $30 a kilogram and most farmers are planting at 3kg/ha, so instead of $90/ha we are sowing at about $40/ha.
“The savings you are making are paying the toolbar off and that’s why you can invest in new technology.”
While air seeders generally can’t manage lighter rates, they also have issues with rate variability from row to row, according to Mr Lanyon.
He fitted a Precision Planting SeedSense monitor to his own air seeder to benchmark its performance and was surprised at the poor results from what he considered a reasonably accurate machine.
“We got a 24 per cent variance or worse between air seeder rows, so you've got issues,” he said.
“Seed is also in an airstream and then bouncing down into the [seeding] trench”.
Confident he has mastered broadacre canola singulation his focus is now on cereal seed singulation and he began trials last sowing season.
Cereal singulation has meant developing tools to make the planters suitable for broadacre conditions and it is in addressing this goal that there is real momentum in Mr Lanyon’s Boort workshop.
He has designed and 3D printed parts to allow wheat singulation trials for next season, redesigned a prototype 10 metre bar to carry narrower spaced row units and invented a system to transfer any kind of seed from a bulk bin to the small vacuum pots mounted on each row unit on a planter.
Solving the latter issue is key to the success of his singulation quest and he has begun the process of patenting this system, Seed Flow.
While not detailing every nuance of the unit he explained that it worked on air pressure and air volume and is designed to be foolproof and work with any kind of seed regardless of size or shape.
“Seed Flow will send it to the row unit mini-hopper as required,” he said.
“Manufacturers have systems like this but you can’t do all seeds, or you can do one and not the other, and you can't get high rates out.
“So we have made this so you can plant wheat, faba, canola - whatever, and at any rates,” he said.
“We have got it working well in the workshop and we are taking it out to the paddock during corn planting to try and destroy it - that's what you have got to do.
He said all majors have some type of central product system that offers this “but there is nothing that handles large seeds to small seeds without major adjustment, or they can't do it period.”
Once a planter can manage any seed type he reckons the take-up is inevitable, reckoning the technology is “sort of like where GPS was in the early 2000s”, he said.
“Everyone knows a bit about it, but is uncertain of adoption at the moment,” he said.
Most farmer reticence in exploring the technology is cost related, he noted saying most new farmers buying planters build its specification up over time which allows them to budget for new technology.
“It’s not that expensive - it would be similar to an air seeder, but it’s just a lot to take on in one year,” Mr Lanyon said.
For newcomers exploring the technology, it is the precision control that makes the transition from an air seeder a certainty.
“The screen [monitor] is the drug - once they get that they are on-board because it tells them everything that is going wrong with their current seeding including their loss per hectare,” Mr Lanyon said.
He is confident a couple of good seasons will see inquiry for planter technology “go nuts”.
“Blokes want to buy this but they haven't got the money right now.
“There's not many things you can control in farming - you can't control the weather - that’s the major influencer, but you can control planting, so if you are going to do it you may as well do it right,” he said.
“It’s just a better way.”