Bigger is better in direct seeding

Bigger is better when it comes to the economics of direct seeding, but there are ways for smaller wheat growers to take advantage of the technology’s cost-saving benefits.

“We’ve always had this gut feeling that bigger is better; that the more acres I have the less cost per acre. We all kind of know that, but some other things are going on, too,” says Kate Painter, an agriculture economics analyst at the University of Idaho.

Key Points

Survey on direct seeding shows lower costs per acre.

Direct seeding may improve spring grain yields.

Alternative equipment options like custom seeding may help small producers.

Painter has been traveling the inland Pacific Northwest, looking for wheat farmers willing to fill out a detailed survey about their seeding practices, costs and yields.

Painter handed out her first surveys to eight direct-seed and nine conventional tillage farmers in the Spokane Conservation District in 2009. The survey asks about everything from capital recovery on equipment to costs for fertilizer, herbicide, seed, repairs, fuel and labor.

As a result, she can state that capital recovery costs are greater for direct-seed farmers because their equipment is more expensive than conventional. However, their variable costs — those directly associated with growing the crops — are lower.

Total fixed and variable machinery costs for direct seeders were about $13.50 per acre, or 26% lower than for conventional growers. Whole-farm savings on 3,000 acres for one year would be $40,500. On a 5,000-acre farm, the savings would be $67,500.

Spring grain yields may improve

With results from only one year, Painter found a 45% increase in spring wheat yields with direct seeding. Some growers, however, reported no difference in yields.

“In years with sufficient moisture for a spring crop, direct seeding seems to come out ahead. That’s where I think it’s going to really pay off, in spring grains. You may be able to farm spring grains in places where you didn’t think possible because you get enough of a yield boost,” Painter says.

The catch is that the direct-seed operations were considerably larger than the conventional farms. The direct seeders averaged 4,256 acres, including custom drilling. Those large acreages helped reduce their cost per acre.

“Direct seeding makes sense on larger farms. It’s more of a struggle with 2,000 acres, but you can make it work with 3,000,” Painter says.

Alternative equipment options like custom seeding may help small producers.

“Direct seeding can be pretty affordable, depending on how you do it. The cost may not be as much of a barrier as you think,” Painter says.

More on direct seeding is at

Farren writes from Ukiah, Ore.

Cutting costs

Producing a direct-seeded spring grain crop can cut costs compared to conventional tillage:

50% reduction in labor (machinery operation)

42% reduction in fuel and lubrication

20% reduction in repairs (parts and labor)

25% increase in capital recovery (depreciation and interest on machinery investment)

26% reduction in total machinery costs

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DIRECT SEED ECONOMICS 1: University of Idaho agriculture economics analyst Kate Painter is looking for more wheat growers to participate in a study of the economics of direct seeding.

This article published in the October, 2011 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.