GHGMP Project Reports by Region

Farm economics and environment benefit from direct seeding

There's a learning curve for producers switching from conventional farming to direct seeding or zero till, but there are several benefits to be found at the end of the production rainbow

Direct seeding forages, grain and even corn is proving to be both productive and profitable for New Brunswick beef producer Robert Acton.

Reduced field time and reduced fuel use are two of the big savings, says Acton, who along with his wife, Alma, and family operate a 1,200 head capacity feedlot near Sackville in southeast New Brunswick. And the practice also benefits the environment, he says. Reduced soil compaction, reduced erosion and reduced greenhouse gas emissions have also been noted.

The Actons have been developing a direct seeding system for 15 years on their RA Farm at Cooksville. They produce all their own feed including grain, as well as barley, corn and grass silage for an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 head of finish and backgrounded cattle fed during the year. "After the first five years we realized we hadn't learned very much," Acton jokes. "But, we're really seeing a difference with direct seeding. My advice to other producers is don't get discouraged. It takes a while to get use to the system, but it works well."

Part of Acton's crop production on dykeland reclaimed by the Acadians in the 17th century is being monitored as part of the federal Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program for Canadian Agriculture (GHGMP). A demonstration project comparing conventional, conservation and direct seeding crop systems established in 2003 continues this year, explains Pat Toner, soil management specialist with New Brunswick Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture.

"We're seeing a wide range of production, economic and environmental benefits from the no-till system compared to the other treatments," says Toner. "While yields are similar under all systems, production costs are reduced, fuel consumption is cut by 60 percent or more, and soil health is improved, which increases the potential to sequester carbon."

Acton has all but eliminated the need to plow, disc and harrow fields to establish crops, he says. "Only if we end up with a rough field then we might go in and harrow, but otherwise we direct seed everything," he says.

Grass and legume stands used for silage are reseeded about every four years. The old stand is sprayed out with a Roundup application in the fall, and then direct seeded with more forages the following spring. Acton has been using a U.S.-made Tye seed drill for 10 years. He's on his second machine now.

"We use manure for fertilizer and may apply some granular fertilizer at seeding, but otherwise we just direct seed the forages and grains with the Tye drill," says Acton. "We get a good stand establishment. Depending on the year, sometimes the sod is cold, so you have to be patient and wait, but that's all part of getting use to the system."

The 15-foot wide Tye drill, with seven-inch row spacing, works well for grains and forages, but in the last couple years, Acton has used a no-till corn planter from the New Brunswick Soil and Crop Improvement Association, made available with support from the GHGMP, to learn a new system of corn production.

"The first year we worked the field lightly and then used the no-till corn planter," he says. "But this year we seeded corn directly into corn stubble. It has worked extremely well. We're looking at nine and 10-foot tall silage corn and not seeing any difference between that and conventionally seeded corn."

Acton plans to use the drill in the future as he rotates corn onto both grain stubble and forage sod.

The reclaimed farm land behind the "abotieau," a simple sluice used by the Acadians to drain salt marshes, has been traditionally worked and seeded for crop production, says Toner. The soil is subject to compaction and often, when tilled, is prone to "smearing." "If you're trying to work fields that are 35 to 40 percent moisture the soil may drag or smear under the disc, which later forms a top crust and seals off when it dries."

Through the GHGMP project, Toner is comparing conventional tillage, which usually involves one pass with a tandem disc and one or two passes with an S-tine harrow, with a conservation or reduced tillage treatment which involves one or two passes with only the S-tine harrow, and zero-till.

Looking at figures collected from grain and forage seeding demonstrations in 2003, Toner says there is a clear economic advantage. Crop production costs under the conventional system totaled $158 per acre with a net profit of about $60 per acre; conservation tillage production costs totaled $152 per acre with a new profit of $65 per acre, while the no-till plots had production costs totaling $146 per acre with a net profit of $71.53 per acre.

Fuel savings, measured in pounds of fuel per acre, from reduced field operations contributed to the lower production costs, says Toner. The GHGMP demonstration project showed conventional farming practices used more than 57.2 pounds of fuel per acre; conservation tillage used 33.6 pounds of fuel per acre; and no-till only 16 pounds of fuel per acre.

Other observations included residue cover left after barley seeding operations. Conventional farming practices left an estimated 14 percent residue cover on the field; conservation practices left about 27 percent residue cover; and no-till left about 72 percent residue cover.

Toner notes several benefits to zero-till from an environmental and conservation standpoint. With fewer field operations, soil compaction is reduced, as is the risk of water erosion.

"We're also seeing an improvement in overall soil health," he says. "With reduced tillage soil organic matter is improving which helps sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Also, the bulk density of the soil changes. Rather than being compacted, it has more tilth and improved aeration, which means improved nutrient cycling."

Toner describes improved soil health as "natural crop insurance." Improved soil organic matter improves water filtration making it possible to get on the land sooner for seeding. During drier periods it also improves moisture retention for crop production. "In times of drought, the soil has water holding capacity," he says.

Part of the New Brunswick GHGMP demonstration site will also be monitored to measure actual differences in key greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, says Toner. Results from that work will be available later on in the project which continues through 2005.

Regional reports will be posted as information becomes available. Please check back regularly for updates.