Barrie Gwillim's Direct Seeding Experience in the Dark Brown Soil Zone at Strasbourg

gwillim1ppBarrie Gwillim of Strasbourg said the reason he moved from conventional tillage to direct seeding is that he is basically a soil conservationist at heart. "I just don't like to rip up the soil and watch it blow away", he said. "There was no blowing dust before the white man came to this country."

Barrie farms in the Dark Brown Soil Zone, an area that averages 386 mm of precipitation throughout the growing season. At the time of spring seeding, soil conditions are often dry. Working the fields to prepare them to seed uses up what moisture there is and that just didn't sit well with Barrie. Now when he seeds, all the soil moisture is available to the seeds.

In addition to the spring moisture saving, Barrie points out that there are many other advantages to direct seeding. The first is the improvement to the soil. "I haven't been direct seeding for that many years yet I can already see the soil mellowing. When we used to summerfallow, we had to go out really early in the spring and break up the soil crust otherwise the surface would bake like cement." In dry years, Barrie said that crusting can still occur but it does so much later in the spring. And if the crops are all in the ground by about May 25, the crusting and lumping of the soil the size of footballs tends not to be a problem.

The other advantage is that he spends less time in the field thereby reducing his fuel cost. And fewer hours on the tractor means less need for other pieces of equipment.

The downside to direct seeding in Barrie's view is that his herbicide costs have not decreased since moving from conventional tillage. And he'd like to see more research done on the effect direct seeding has on the proliferance of crop diseases. The other question he'd like answered is the relationship between direct seeding and grasshopper infestations.

1997 was the first year Barrie's entire farm was direct seeded. Prior to that, he began with a few acres in 1993 and the acreage grew every year. He credits the Last Mountain Soil Conservation group for being the catalyst for getting direct seeding going in the area. The group served two purposes: it leased various pieces of direct seeding equipment for the members to rent and try direct seeding for themselves; and as a support group for its members.

gwillim2ppCurrently, Barrie uses a John Deere 665 air seeder on 12 inch spacings equipped with carbide tipped Atom Jet single shoot openers. He runs a liquid tube down the back of each opener and each opener drags behind it a length of chain. The liquid fertilizer is pressurized so that it squirts out the tubes at the rear and to the side of the boots. The purpose of the chains behind the boot is to close up the furrow. In the first year, Barrie had some problems with the chains. "Initially, the chains were bolted on without any shock absorbers,"he said. "When a shank snapped back into position after tripping on a rock, the force would break the odd chain. So I took chunks of tire and put them between the boot and the chain and since then, I haven't had any problems." The chains aren't anything fancy. He uses whatever chain he can scrounge. Each chain is about 24 inches long except those near the tires. Those are about 15 inches long. And thing about the system is its price. To buy the air seeder and tank, openers, and liquid tank cost Barrie less than $20,000. The chains cost nothing.

But does the system work? "You bet!" said Barrie. "I figured I wouldn't have too much trouble as long as there was some moisture in the ground. Then in 1998, I seeded my last field of wheat into dust. We had no rain and yet the wheat came up in beautiful little rows."

So why does it work? Barrie's theory on the success of the system has to do with the location of the chains and the seed bed. "I think the first key to this system is that the chains are very low on the boots. They're basically buried, running just over the top of the seed. If they were any higher on the boots, they would probably bounce up and around. The other key is that the seed bed is so firm at seeding. I don't harrow the fields after harvest or before seeding." The wide row spacing on his air seeder provides excellent trash clearance.

The limitations to this system are that the cultivator isn't on a floating hitch so depth control can be a problem and there is no packing of the seeds. To overcome these problems, Barrie grows only large seeded crops. "I grow only chick peas, lentils and cereals," he said. I find the seeds of these crops to be much more forgiving than small seeds like canola if I get them in a little too deep. As well, they don't seem to require the heavier packing that the little seeded crops do." An alternative to Barrie's chains is to use shank mounted packers. This is advisable for anyone with smalled seeded crops in the rotation.

Seeding in the Dark Brown Soil Zone can be a risky business some years but for Barrie Gwillim, the move to direct seeding has alleviated a lot that risk for a small investment.