Farmers using a cover crop seeder developed by Penn State agricultural scientists may eventually need only a single trip across the field to accomplish what takes most farmers three passes and several pieces of equipment to do.
Pennsylvania farmers are increasingly interested in growing cover crops, but the time, cost and late fall harvest of corn and other crops often limit their use, said Gregory Roth, professor of agronomy.
The seeder can help farmers, especially small operations, save time and money by condensing multiple tasks into one trip through a no-till field. It would also allow farmers to seed fields that lacked cover crops due to late season and cost concerns.
“It can do three things in one pass,” Roth said. “It can seed the cover crop, add fertilizer and spray an herbicide to kill emerged weeds.”
Unlike plowing, no-till farming uses a minimal amount of ground disturbance when planting seeds, a method that improves the soil and prevents erosion. Cover crops play an important role in reducing runoff and helping to build organic material in the soil during the fall and spring.
A tractor pulls the seeder through the cornfield rows using a sensor to guide the device between the rows. The device has several blades that lightly till the ground between the cornrows creating a planting swath. The seeds drop onto the soil and a follow-up roller packs the seed into place.
At the same time, the machine strategically applies a fertilizer and herbicide. The research team created a prototype using a number of existing technologies from agricultural equipment manufacturers.
According to Roth, the best time to use the device is six weeks after the corn is planted. If the cover crop is planted too early, it can compete with the corn plants; if it is planted too late, the corn crop may be too competitive for the cover crop to grow.
A single pass through a field costs the farmer approximately $10 an acre, Roth said. By saving one to two trips through the fields, farmers could save $10 to $20 per acre.