Is edge-row the next big thing in ag?

March 3, 2017

By Ken Wilson, machinery editor working at Farm Weekly in Western Australia

Discussing strategies ahead of this year's Discussing strategies ahead of this year's "edge-row" plantings are Mindarabin farmer Simon Hill (left), farm manager Hannes Kohler and farm worker Christian Schroder.

FOR the sake of a name, let's call it edge-row sowing.

I know there's near-row and in-row but edge-row is a more precise description of what could be the next big thing in one-pass crop establishment.

It can best be described as accurately sowing alongside the previous year's plant rows without disturbing stubble and placing seeds in those rows.

It is best achieved using a hydraulically-controlled guidance hitch, which is fitted to the tractor hitch or an air seeder hitch of a tow-between model, with a GPS receiver fitted on the tractor and on the seeding bar.

Called a ProTrakker, it eliminates the problem of bar drift, maintaining the bar's line of direction within an accuracy, using RTK guidance, of plus or minus one to two centimetres (0.4-0.8inch).

This contrasts with bar movements of plus or minus 20cm (8in) normally associated with seeding bars.

Why edge-row?

Four years of paddock trials by Mindarabin farmer and Burando Hill director Simon Hill - and a growing band of ProTrakker users - shows the method virtually eliminates non-wetting issues and improves crop yields.

The latter is achieved because seeds are placed in a moisture zone with the bonus of accessing residual nutrients and old root pathways.

More than 20 years of research work by CSIRO, led by their former principal research scientist Dr Margaret Roper, has revealed through dye tests that zero till preserves old plant root pathways, allowing moisture to travel beyond the water-repellent top layer of the root zone.

"In pure no-till or zero till, where discs are used, we have achieved similar results very consistently over a number of years now," Dr Roper told Farm Weekly last month.

"There is a similar pattern also using knife points, which don't disturb old root systems."

According to Simon, trial results involving the ProTrakker, have shown a seven per cent yield increase across wheat, barley and canola trials.

"I would expect even better results in a hard finish," he said.

"It is definitely proving a valuable tool and a seven per cent lift in yields over a big program is significant.

"It's easy to see the visual differences sowing alongside the stubble and sowing in the inter-row with the ProTrakker compared with conventional sowing."

But it's more than overcoming non-wetting.

"It's the mineralisation effect, it's residual nutrients, helpful bacteria, the moisture harvesting by the old row, lower soil strength and existing root pathways," he said.

According to Simon, crop yields in WA have started to plateau, triggering a bigger focus on overcoming yield constraint problems.

"From what we've experienced and what ProTrakker users are telling me, it's very clear we are creating a fertility strip that can be used every year," he said.

"On our farm, the ProTrakker has several advantages for us because we can sow our canola in semi-wet conditions, drilling it into last year's furrows without disturbing the stubble.

"Now, when we know we have moisture in the ground from summer rains, we can almost pick our own break, if you like, to the season.

"This method has widened our sowing window and led to more thought about what other crops are possible for us to grow and we're considering peas without fear of wind erosion because we retain several years stubble.

"Perhaps various forms of fodder crop very early established on the summer rain pathways, also might be an option."

Interestingly, Simon's farm manager Hannes Kohler, said controlled traffic farming (CTF) was unveiled as a byproduct of edge-row sowing.

"We've got everything on RTK guidance and we're always seeding in the same spot," he said.

"So our transition to CTF has been easy, working with machinery on 12 metre (40ft) multiples and wheel spacings at three metres (10ft)."

The next logical step will be to develop the fertility and remove constraints from the fertility strips for the ultimate one-pass crop establishment.

And this is happening right now, albeit, in trials, involving remediating the biggest constraints on each fertility strip using granules, or liquid products at depth, or by incorporating by the Inclusion plate method.

The aim is to place gypsum, lime and or organic matter precisely placed in the row, or fertility strip, in order to give the plant every advantage against sometimes hostile soils at depth and pit everything against the weeds on the inter-row.

Such repeatability, however, does trigger the "disease" subject.

But according to Simon he sees more diseases in the inter-row.

"There's probably a lot to the saying about healthy plants being better able to better withstand diseases," he said.

Dr Roper, however, has a more scientific explanation.

She said microscopic soil bacteria with anti-fungal properties had the potential to suppress crop diseases like fusarium crown rot in wheat and schlerotinia in canola.

And in a moist old planting row, the bacteria are active as opposed to a dry inter-row.

So-called edge-row sowing is likely to gain traction because of growing "proof of the pudding", evidence backed by scientific research.

The biggest issue facing farmers eager to advance the system will be objective research, involving trials throughout the wheatbelt in different soil types and moisture zones.

That aside, results so far point to edge-row sowing as the next big thing in WA crop establishment.

*The ProTrakker is distributed by Burando Hill. More information: 9821 4422.

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