SPOTLIGHT ON SHUTOFFS
BY LEE HART • ILLUSTRATION BY JASON LIN
If farm fields were perfectly rectangular and contained no rocks, trees, gullies or waterholes, sectional control shutoffs on equipment wouldn’t be necessary. But on real Alberta farms such as the one Jason Saunders operates southeast of Taber, or D’Arcy Hilgartner crops near Camrose, the reality is quite different. Varying by the year, most fields contain obstacles to be worked around during seeding and spraying. The overlap of inputs is impossible to avoid.
To accommodate irregular fields and obstacles, both farmers converted to air-seeding systems with sectional control shutoffs in recent years. They have realized a six- to 10-per-cent saving on inputs that has been clear and relatively easy to measure. To a lesser degree, better harvestability has improved crop quality. Each expects to recover the cost of including the factory-installed sectional shutoff feature within two to three years. The cost of this feature can range from $25,000 to about $40,000 on new seeding equipment. But can further benefits be found?
Both Saunders and Hilgartner suspect there may be environmental benefits that come with the reduced overlap of inputs afforded by sectional shut off equipment. The technology certainly reduces the percentage of chemical fertilizer applied. As well, depending on the type of seeding equipment used, the two farmers see opportunity to reduce diesel fuel consumption if draft (tractor pull) requirements are also reduced. But, such suspected benefits are difficult to measure.
This is where a new three-year study funded in part by the federal Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program comes into play. Initiated by Alberta Pulse Growers (APG), the Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley are also participating in the Prairie-wide project. APG policy and programs specialist Nevin Rosaasen will co-ordinate the study, which will strive to quantify the environmental benefits derived from sectional control seeding systems.
While 2019/20 will be just thesecond season Saunders has used a seeding system with automatic sectional control, he appreciates its reduced input costs. Sectional control has been offered with field sprayer equipment for more than 15 years, but has only become an option offered by seeding equipment manufacturers in recent years.
Particularly in wetter years, Saunders has water features to work around. “Field layout can be irregular and it can involve a lot of turning to work around obstacles,” he said. Two years ago, when he upgraded equipment, he bought a New Holland cart with sectional control that configures with his Salford disk drill. The 40-foot-wide seeding system has six sections.
Remote sensing field maps are fed into the controller on the air cart. As he seeds the field, the system automatically shuts off the necessary section combinations to avoid overlap on areas that have already been seeded. “The system can be operated manually from the cab, so the operator can shut off different sections, but ours is fully integrated with software to automatically shut off sections,” said Saunders.
“The potential benefits of
section control technology for
reducing input costs is second to none.”
“We’re just gaining experience with the system, but probably in an average year the saving is more than five per cent and under wetter conditions with more waterholes to work around it would probably be more like 10 per cent saving in inputs,” he said.
In central Alberta, Hilgartner has used sectional control on part of his seeding system for four years and on the full seeding system for two seasons. To improve efficiency of seeding operations he began using a liquid fertilizer tank (34-0-0 nitrogen) with sectional shut offs four years ago. Two years ago he bought a Case IH cart with sectional controls to work with his 58-foot-wide Flexi-Coil 5000 drill.
By applying most of the crop nitrogen requirements through the liquid tank, it frees up space in air-seeding tanks for seed and other nutrients. “Rather than stopping perhaps every hour to refill, now I can seed for three to four hours before stopping,” he said.
“The sectional control feature absolutely makes a difference,” said Hilgartner. “It is pretty straightforward. If, just as an example, you are putting on $100 worth of fertilizer per acre and you reduce your overlap by 50 per cent, then you are saving 50 per cent of your cost.”
Both Saunders and Hilgartner said retrofitting their old seeding systems for sectional control wasn’t an option. While there is after-market equipment available to upgrade specific makes of seeding carts to accommodate sectional control, it didn’t work for their farms. They also found factory-installed sectional control to be the more economical option.
They said reducing the amount of fertilizer overlap will probably provide a benefit to the environment. They don’t see sectional control features on their equipment providing much benefit in reducing tractor fuel consumption with reduced draft. This is because the seeding tool remains in the ground at all times while the supply of inputs to the various runs in each section is shut off.
But the three-year study of the environmental benefits of sectional control on seeding equipment will look at all sectional control seeding systems, said Rosaasen. “All systems do reduce the amount of overlap, which reduces inputs being applied,” he said. “And on some seeding systems the openers lift out of the ground when shut off, which reduces horsepower requirements, eliminates seedbed disturbance and helps to reduce emissions.
“If there are measurable and quantifiable benefits to the environment from using this technology then farmers should be recognized for the additional investment,” he said.
Launched in April, 2019, the three-year, three-phase sectional control study bears a lengthy title: Evaluation of Emission Reductions and Cost Savings in Sectional Control Air Seeders, Drills and Sowing Equipment. Its first phase will establish a reference source of sectional control technology available to western Canadian farmers. It will also determine what original factory installed equipment is available from seeding equipment manufacturers. As well, the project will compile a list of all available after-market or retrofit sectional control technology.
In phase two, working with an engineering firm, researchers will analyze the technical specifications of 15 to 20 types of sectional control technology to estimate potential savings. This will be followed by field evaluations of equipment to measure any actual benefits.
Finally, researchers will team up with Alberta-based non-profit society Biological Carbon Canada. Together, they will develop a protocol to measure and quantify the expected environmental benefits of sectional control in the areas of reduced greenhouse gas emission and carbon sequestration.
“If someone is spending $1.2 million for a new seed drill with the optional feature of sectional control, that is a considerable investment,” said Rosaasen. “But if that equipment and technology is producing environmental benefits that society values, then the farmer’s role in the carbon cycle should be recognized.”
Establishing a protocol will make it possible for farmers to qualify for carbon credits and be compensated for them, ultimately providing relief from the federal carbon tax. “The potential benefits of section control technology for reducing input costs is second to none,” said Rosaasen. “Through this study we want to look at the next level of benefits to the environment and to society and create a system where farmers can be compensated for their efforts.”