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Published September 21, 2010, 10:39 AM

Headliners are fine, but machines still the star at Big Iron

WEST FARGO, N.D. — Big Iron XXX was certainly the bigger than ever and fit for its anniversary. The event drew U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, political debates and more than 100 international visitors through the North Dakota Trade Office.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

WEST FARGO, N.D. — Big Iron XXX was certainly the bigger than ever and fit for its anniversary. The event drew U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, political debates and more than 100 international visitors through the North Dakota Trade Office.

But most of the thousands of farmers coming through the door across the event’s three-day run again were thinking about the goods and services that today’s agriculture needs to survive and thrive — especially the machinery.

Big Iron has become famous for its machinery field demonstrations. For the past two years, the event has focused on strip-till equipment and demonstrations, but this year went further into no-till. Four inches of rain at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds forced the event to be shifted into an amphitheater-type seminar, led by North Dakota State University engineers and agronomists.

Roger Ashley, an NDSU Extension Service area agronomist in Dickinson, N.D., says the goal is for the entire planting — placing seed and fertilizer — in a one-pass method, and 75 percent south and west of the Missouri River is “true no-till.”

NDSU designed a 6-foot-wide prototype system for plot seeding in 2003, built by Steffes Corp. of Dickinson, according to university specifications. It has “true parallel linkage,” which has increased in commercial models. It has a load-sensing cell to determine how much packing is occurring and adjusts via computer on-board. It has the lowest soil surface disturbance of anything on the market.

The NDSU machine has planted more than 500 acres and they haven’t had to replace blades. The machine is provided with air distribution and the station does a lot with it — seed treatment trials, alfalfa variety trials and sunflower date-of-seeding trials. The only thing they haven’t planted with it are large-seeded chickpeas.

“I think people are surprised with how little soil disturbance we can have,” Ashley says.

Many producers are using hoe-type openers and knives, and single-disk openers, which are good but have some difficulty handling residues. Newer equipment is shifting toward handling heavier residues, which starts at harvest time.

“If we’re using a single-disk opener, we’re looking at using something like a stripper header, leaving residue attached to the soil and as tall as possible,” Ashley says. “We can run across with a single-disk opener and don’t get ‘hair-pinning.’” Hair-pinning is where residue or straw is tucked into the soil by the opener, creating some negative effects, including popping the seed out of the furrow, among other things.

In the western part of the state, farmers have problems with wheat stem sawfly. Spraying for the pest “fails miserably” because they end up killing the parasitoids that control the sawfly. “So the sawfly has free run of the field,” Ashley says.

Researchers have used the machine to put on 300 pounds of urea with this drill and have not had a problem with germination or seedling injury, he says. He says they’ve also used the machine to seed native grass seed.

On display

Several companies are working in the area, and several were lined up at the demonstrations that were rained out. Many have gone to a “parallel linkage” design and have gone to hydraulics so there are no springs and the openers don’t bounce.

One of those companies is Seed Hawk, started in 1992 in Langbank, Saskatchewan, in the southeast part of the province. Two brothers built a tool that has independent openers that “perfectly follow the terrain,” independently among the openers.

“If you set the drill at three-quarters of an inch, every single opener on that drill has to seed at that depth,” says Chris Morson, marketing coordinator for the company, which has dealerships in Garrison, Hettinger and Williston in North Dakota and in Great Falls, Billings and Havre in Montana.

There is a hydraulic cylinder on every opener, which achieves the depth, making timing of fertilizer and harvest much easier because it’s even all the way across.

Seed Hawk brought some of the biggest equipment on the grounds — a 66-feet-wide seeder with a 600-bushel cart to Big Iron. The company makes one larger — 84 feet with an 800-bushel cart. The machines, fully tired, fold up to 27 feet wide on the top of the folds and 23.7 feet on the bottom.

Seed Hawk seeders are known for zero-till, performs best going into undisturbed ground and the previous year’s stubble. It creates a “blackened strip” of surface soil in seeding, which warms more quickly for emergence in Northern climates, and for accurate depth control.

“Each seed is going to be put down and packed well, and shallow, close to the surface,” Morson says.

The company features a special hitch.

“There’s a paddle in the hitch that senses last year’s stubble row,” Morson says. “As the paddle touches last year’s stubble row, if you get off-track with your auto-steer, it sends a signal to the front hitch which has two hydraulic cylinders on it, that adjusts the drill back and forth and always keeps the openers between last year’s stubble rows. Any soil that’s thrown by the knives is soft when its hits last year’s stubble, leaving a nice black strip of soil that improves that warming soil and the agronomy behind the machinery we’re talking about.”

The speed can be increased a bit because the soil can’t be thrown onto neighboring rows.

On 10-inch spacing, the shank-style drill can travel 4.5 mph to 5 mph. On 12-inch spacing, speed can sneak up to 5.4 mph. On 15-inch spacing the operator can go about 6 mph.

Morson says the drill is for the small grains and most other crops, but has some challenges with corn with below-ground root balls, and with sunflowers in some conditions.

Complete outfits cost $250,000 to $400,000, depending on options. Sectional control technology is an option, much as has become common on sprayer booms.

“We split the drill into eight sections. It shuts down sections as it overlaps, guided by GPS,” he says. “That option alone will increase the price by $60,000.

“It’ll map out the headlands and start seeding out the field, going around sloughs, and anytime there’s a triangle, or kind of an overlap, the system splits the drill into eight sections and each meter into sections,” Morson says. “As you overlap, it’ll shut down those sections of the meters that feed the seed and granular fertilizer. There’s no wasting the product and you’re not disturbing the ground you’ve already done.” They can control seed and fertilizer and expand into anhydrous ammonia or liquid fertilizer. Savings is 15 to 20 percent of the materials needed, and upwards of $200,000 on big operations.

He says that may pay for the whole drill in three or four years, he says.

Among its intriguing displays, the company brought a pickup-drawn small plot seeder with eight openers on it that “we can bring right to the farm and we can seed the same day, the same fields, putting down the same product that the farmer is putting down his current drill, and show what ours is doing.” He says it can take as little as 20 minutes of the farmer’s time to demonstrate something that otherwise would require bringing in a full-sized demonstration model.

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