Innovative Machinery to Ease Cover Crop Seeding

11/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

HOLTWOOD, Pa. — Minnesota engineering was on display last week in southern Lancaster County. Two companies from the lake-dappled Upper Midwest brought their latest machines to Cover Crops Solutions’ annual field day on Oct. 30 at Steve Groff’s Cedar Meadow Farm, showing off tools aimed at helping farmers do their jobs more efficiently.

Owatonna, Minn.-based Gandy showed a seeder that mounts on a combine corn header. Joel Myers, a no-till consultant and retired NRCS agronomist, told field day attendees that the seeder’s combination of cover crop planting with crop harvesting culminated half a decade of buzz in no-till circles.

The seeder is mounted above the head and releases the seed beneath the head, Doug Snorek, Gandy’s sales and marketing manager, said in a phone interview.

The residue from the combining covers the seeds, eliminating the time and fuel needed for a separate planting pass over the field.

“You almost need to see it to understand it,” Snorek said.

The seeder, based on the company’s original Orbit-Air, has been commercially available for about a year. “There’s nothing different about it except its size and shape,” Snorek said.

The combine seeder uses the same metering and application systems Orbit-Airs have used for years. “It’s just a matter of it going on a different platform,” he said.

The seeder can be powered by the combine’s hydraulics, a blower motor or a gas engine motor. Tapping the hydraulics is often fine for corn because corn taxes the hydraulic system less than soybeans do. Many soybean farmers use a blower motor with the seeder.

Ryegrass has been the main crop used with the combine-mounted seeder so far, Snorek said.

Because the seeder is a modification to an existing combine, farmers need to find a way to mount it. Most use some combination of plates, bolts and welding to secure the seeder. Many farmers mount the seeder deflector right under the combine snout, he said.

Farmers can also take the seeder off the combine and use it in the spring for granular chemical application. The same metering wheels are used for cover crops and chemicals.

“It does have a little multiuse option. You’re not just locked into using it for just one option,” Snorek said.

Full-, half- and quarter-rate metering wheels are available. For cover crops, farmers would use the full-rate wheels except for the outer two rows, which overlap with the adjacent row.

The seeder was field-tested in Indiana with good results, Snorek said.


Another company, Minneapolis-based Rowbot Systems, debuted its first prototype of the Rowbot, a new machine for in-season nitrogen application, at the field day. Previous tools for sidedressing, such as highboy sprayers, have gone big, but corn can still get too tall for highboys to drive over.

That’s why Rowbot has gone small.

The four-wheel-drive, diesel-powered machine looks a little like the Pixar robot Wall-E rolling between 30-inch corn rows.

The current Rowbot has some autonomy, which means it can drive by itself following GPS data. Over the next few months the company will add more sensors to help the Rowbot avoid obstacles, company CEO Kent Cavender-Bares said in a phone interview.

Cavender-Bares, a Minneapolis engineer, runs the company with his two brothers, an upstate New York dairy farmer and a Pittsburgh robotics company owner.

The goal is to have the robotic applicators be fully autonomous and to have several machines drive through a field at all times, returning to a fueling station when necessary and stopping for scheduled maintenance.

“24/7 is the general premise,” Cavender-Bares said.

That vision of autonomy brings numerous challenges, such as navigating around obstacles like animals, people and uneven surfaces.

Cavender-Bares feels confident about the Rowbot’s progress so far.

“It won’t handle every hill, for sure, and it won’t handle every rut, but it is quite stable and it gives us confidence that we can move forward,” he said.

The team has gotten the machine to the self-driving stage a little faster than expected.

Ideally the Rowbot will identify problems before it gets itself into trouble. “It needs to detect a rut that it can’t traverse” rather than tip over or get stuck, Cavender-Bares said.

A tank of fuel lasts about six hours at this point, though the company plans to increase that. The fertilizer tank can carry about 40 gallons, which should cover about two acres of sidedressing.

The several-feet-tall Rowbot may fare a little better in wetter fields than traditional massive farm equipment will, but Cavender-Bares is quick to note that he does not recommend the machine be used in muddy fields.

“If you put (the Rowbot) next to one of today’s big pieces of equipment, this will sink in a lot less,” and it will have the ability to recognize when it is slipping, but “it’s better to err on the conservative side,” he said.

Pennsylvania farmers should not expect to see Rowbots near them next growing season.

The company is focusing on the Corn Belt states first, with Minnesota and possibly Illinois and Iowa getting the first shot at commercial use.

The Midwest grows more corn and has flatter fields than states like Pennsylvania, so the Corn Belt makes a sensible starting place.

A few Rowbots could be test-driven in fields near the company’s Pittsburgh office, but that is still “to be determined,” Cavender-Bares said.

Rowbot will work with retailers who sell fertilizer and other ag products to market robotic sidedressing as a service.

The retailers already have relationships with the farmers and will earn a commission on sales. Several deals with retailers are already in place for next year, Cavender-Bares said.

The company deliberately wanted to start by marketing the sidedressing service rather than selling the Rowbots themselves. The machines will still require some perfecting next summer, and “our service teams will be much more able to cope with those rough edges” than the farmers seeking the service, Cavender-Bares said.

The company may expand into robot sales once decreases in the cost of production make Rowbots more affordable to farmers, he said.

“In the early years, our costs will be very high,” but the company is seeking grants and venture capital, Cavender-Bares said.

Rowbot is a semifinalist for the 2013 Cleantech Open and a finalist in the 2013 Minnesota Cup, two contests for high-tech innovations.

Rowbot is currently aiming to charge $10 per acre of sidedressing and $15 per acre of cover crop seeding.

Even with the challenges of developing the Rowbot, the company is discovering that the technology holds more promise than initially expected.

Interseeding cover crops was not originally part of the plan, but it makes a natural fit with the Rowbot’s midseason field usage, Cavender-Bares said.

“It’s a very exciting project to be working on because, while we started on a very narrow platform of nitrogen in corn, it’s become clear that it’s a platform for doing a lot of work in corn,” he said.

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