3-in-1 cuts farm time and cost

PENN STATE (US) — New technology that does triple duty by seeding cover crops, adding fertilizer, and spraying herbicide in one pass could save small farmers as much as $20 per acre.

Because cover crops play an important role in reducing runoff and helping to build organic material in the soil during the fall and spring, farmers are increasingly interested in growing them, but the time, cost, and late fall harvest of corn often limits their use, says Gregory Roth, professor of agronomy at Penn State University.

Using a sensor as a guide, a tractor pulls the seeder through the cornfield rows. The device has several blades that lightly till the ground between the cornrows creating a planting swath. The seeds drop onto the soil and a follow-up roller packs the seed into place. At the same time, the machine strategically applies a fertilizer and herbicide.

The best time to use the device, Roth says, is six weeks after the corn is planted. If the cover crop is planted too early, it can compete with the corn plants; if it is planted too late, the corn crop may be too competitive for the cover crop to grow.

The seeder was tested last summer in three studies at Penn State’s Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center, says William Curran, professor of weed sciences. In each of the studies, the crop seeder was successful in establishing cover crops without any impact on corn yields.

Three cover crops—annual ryegrass, red clover, and white clover—were tested as was a mixture of ryegrass and clover. Because ryegrass and clover can prevent soil erosion and serve as a natural source of nitrogen, farmers also may not need to purchase as much fertilizer.

“We picked cover crops that we thought would work and chose the ones that we thought had the best chance to be successful,” Curran says. Despite the success of the first tests, the equipment needs further work.

“We really had just one season for research and we basically tested things that we were pretty sure would be successful. Now we have to do more research before we feel the results are of value and we feel confident in what we’re doing.”

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