No-till Cover Crop Seeder Saves $10-$20 An Acre

Penn State agronomists designed and tested a triple-duty cover crop seeder.

Published on: May 26, 2011

Necessity may be the mother of invention; but so is the quest for better management practices. That's why Penn State agronomists built and field-tested a combination no-till drill to save time and money in seeding cover crops in a single pass.

With the fall harvest time crunch, it's tough enough to find time to plant cover crops – especially smaller operations, says Greg Roth, Penn State Extension agronomist. And that's why Roth and others on a research team, equipped a no-till drill with row guidance sensors, spray tanks and nozzles to apply fertilizer and put down a burn-down herbicide – all in one pass.

THREE-IN-ONE TIME SAVER: This no-till drill is equipped to incorporate cover crop seeds, put down fertilizer and apply a burn-down weed killer at the same time. Photo by Patrick Mansell, Penn State.
THREE-IN-ONE TIME SAVER: This no-till drill is equipped to incorporate cover crop seeds, put down fertilizer and apply a burn-down weed killer at the same time. Photo by Patrick Mansell, Penn State.

Each pass through a field costs about $10 an acre in fuel machine and labor for tillage, seeding and herbicide application. That's why Roth calculates that saving one or two of those trips via a combination tool could save $10 to $20 per acre.

No-till plants seeds with minimal ground disturbance, while preventing soil erosion. Cover crops further help reduce runoff and build soil organic material.

Front-running ripple coulters lightly till the ground between cornrows, creating a planting swath. The seeds drop onto the soil and a follow-up roller packs the seed into place. The machine strategically applies fertilizer and herbicide at the same time.

Last summer, the seeder successfully established cover crops in three studies at Penn State's Russell Larson Agricultural Research Center.  said William Curran, professor of weed science. In each of the studies, the crop seeder was successful in establishing cover crops without any impact on corn yields.

Annual ryegrass, red clover, white clover and a clover-ryegrass mix were tested, reports Bill Curran, Extension weed specialist involved in the project. Because ryegrass can take up existing nitrogen and clover is a natural N source, they may reduce fertilizer needs.

"We picked cover crops that we thought would work and chose ones we thought had the best chance to be successful," he adds. The researchers were pleased with the results, but say they have more work to do to perfect the seeder.

If the seeder is marketed, the researchers believe it'll be inexpensive enough for use on smaller farms. They've filed a provisional patent.

According to Roth, the best time to no-till cover crops is six weeks after the corn is planted. If planted too early, it can compete with the corn. If planted too late, the corn crop may be too competitive for the cover crop to grow.

Penn State has tried aerial seeding of cover crops during the growing season, but found it to be expensive and only moderately successful. Roth says it was effective in establishing a cover crop about half the time.

Watch the drill in action at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pi0zbO61DgA&feature=email. It's likely to be on display with design details at Penn State's Ag Progress Days, on Aug. 16, 17 and 18.