A discussion in the Organic Grain Resource and Information Network (OGRAIN) email group started with a question about upgrading a drain grill to seed complex combinations of different-sized cover crop seeds, and from there, snowballed into a larger conversation about other farm equipment preferences and advice. Read the full discussion below. To post to the OGRAIN listserv email discussion group, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe, send an email to email@example.com.
I am looking to upgrade my grain drill. I need something that I can use to no-till fields of small grains and small seeded forages like clover and alfalfa (I currently have a grass seeder attachment that simply spreads small seeds on the surface — I need something that puts the seed where it needs to be). I would also need something with multiple boxes that allows me to seed more complex combinations of different sized covers. I don't want to be dependent on purchased blends, since I want to be able to use seed that I have raised. What is your favorite drill that would fulfill these needs?
-Will Ortman, Marion, S.D.
Response: I looked at many small no-till drills over the last decade and was never able to find a drill that would be served by my little Kubota 34 hp except a 1-2 slot, which was not an acceptable solution. As I remember, the rule of thumb is about 10-15 hp per opener irrespective of brand name at least in past years and can be influenced by field conditions. I now have a Kubota 100 hp tractor.
Here is the link to the new small Cross slot drills: https://www.crossslot.com/new-small-drill-range
I did study the John Deere website and found the comparable features of the ADF system to only be on their large drills. Perhaps that is what you need for your operation, but for small operations, these features were not available in a commercial unit until now as far as I know. I have also been impressed by watching the many videos that you can find by independent practitioners worldwide. I borrowed a neighbor’s Atchison drill which also has an older boot designed by Dr. Baker. But the arms were bouncing up and down over uneven soil, and in some cases, did not even track the ground to plant. That is why I personally believe in the ADF and independent ground force for both opening and closing.
One problem with many studies is that the row spacing is not the same — 10 inches for Cross Slot (standard spacing) vs. 7.5 inches or other in other drills. That is one reason I am interested in 7.5 inches as this and multiples thereof are widely used in the U.S. and upper Midwest. There are too many variables in play when you change spacing to make clear comparisons. Competition for nutrients, sun, weed pressure, etc. are all influenced by spacing. In heavy rains as we now see in our area, 4 inches in one short period, having a better seed bed is critical. On the other side, we had drought conditions this growing season at many times, and the moisture is conserved better in the T slot allowing the seed to germinate and begin to grow.
The Cross Slot is also economical with regard to fuel use and accuracy of depth, which for grains is important. Soil disturbance is one of the lowest. See NDSU report: https://library.ndsu.edu/ir/bitstream/handle/10365/9425/ae1351_English_2007.pdf?sequence=1
Dr. Baker mentioned to me the late Butch Fisher from Illinois who worked for the Douglas County Soil and Conservation District, which rents out a variety of no-till drills to local farmers in the district. He recorded superior yields of corn (even without singulation) with the Cross Slot drill. I am trying to find a comprehensive report he did. I am not sure what other crops were involved. I considered, as he did, modifying an older JD drill with Cross Slot openers which if you are a fabricator and handy person would likely be something to consider. The number you mention below is for a Case IH no-till drill.
The newest 2022 line of Cross Slot openers have enabled the drills be made more economically. They also have a long service life and parts are available in the U.S. Water is used as a ballast by some other drill makers, but volume must be large compared with steel to get the weights needed. I love my steel wheel weights vs. water in the tires.
Jake Freestone, the manager of Overbury Farms in England, makes a YouTube video every few days that show how he grows a variety of crops and cover crops with a 27-slot Cross Slot drill. In one, he is planting right behind a combine. One tenet of his is to never leave the ground bare for long. I like his videos as he regularly stops to assess the crops, weeds, soil and crop residue and speak about tonnage yields and carbon impact on soil and other parameters like worms, insects and wildlife. He operates 4,000 acres. The operation has been going no-till since 2013. He reviews cost savings with his methods. Seed prices have gone up. Fuel has gone up. Etc.
— Sally Leong, Avoca, Wis.
I also took a very strong interest in the Cross Slot design… and have spoken directly with both John Baker and others involved in its development. He has a functionally excellent design. However, it has a lot of iron built into it (required to achieve the downforce he is aiming for), and iron alone = $$$$. Because of how it functions (a “shoe” which creates the seed benches on each side of a single vertical disc), the “shoes” act somewhat as a kind of “brake” against the cutting disc… (generating wear as well)… these aspects make the drill require a very high HP level per opener compared to other designs. HP costs $$$ as well, both in fuel and bigger equipment overhead.
Once I learned how heavy, costly and HP-requiring they are, my interest in owning one began to wain, EVEN THOUGH I PERSONALLY BELIEVE THAT THEY ARE AN EXCELLENT DRILL BY DESIGN TO ACHIEVE VERY GOOD SEED AND FERTILIZER PLACEMENT IN THE SOIL PROFILE IN A WIDE VARIETY OF NO-TILL CONDITIONS. Then I saw a number of studies comparing emergence of various crops between the Cross Slot and the Deere. Overall, not enough of a difference to be statistically significant… in some cases, Deere was better (and if I remember correctly, even substantially better), and in some cases, the Cross Slot did better. But in general, not a significant difference, and specifically, not enough of a difference to justify the added overall cost.
There’s a reason that the Deere design really hasn’t changed significantly in over 40 years. They got the basic design right the first time, and no challenger has really been able to reasonably outperform them yet and take market share away from them. The CIH500, with its parallel linkage has some advantages, and Deere SHOULD have that, IMO, but that brings with it added cost, complication and wear points, and so far, CIH hasn’t really made a perceptible dent into Deere’s market share. Cross Slot, even though it DOES have some design engineering advantages, won’t be able to impact that either.
The Cross Slot was designed to be able to no-till plant RIGHT INTO SOD… in New Zealand, where this is more common. In those conditions, it MAY have a larger advantage than in typical row cropping conditions normally experienced here in the States.
-John Meyer, Stewartsville, MN
Response: Crossslot.com now has a small drill design with up to 9 openers. I have been talking with the engineer John Baker about a 7.5” spacing which is commonly used in this area so comparisons can be better made with US drills. They normally use 10 inches. Each arm is independently controlled with a downforce up to 1,400 pounds. The seed and fertilizer are independently delivered pneumatically to an inverted T slot (seed on one side and fertilizer on the other) so they are less likely to dry or wash out. Dr. Baker has been in this field for decades as an engineer and later as owner on Cross Slot and is now working on singulation for irregular shaped seed like corn. He expects to have the design done in a year.
Cross Slot drills are widely used in Great Plains and northwest U.S. for grain, but they are for huge farms and very expensive. I have been seeking a small no-till drill myself, but he was not interested until the last few years. I am very excited about this development. The 9 slot would also allow 30 inch and 60 inch spacing for corn and beans. The drill can be driven up to 10 mph. It is useful in many kinds of environments with regard to soils and hardness and goes through cover crops easily from demonstrations you can find throughout the world on YouTube or the Cross Slot website.
There was a failed effort to try to build Cross Slot drills in Northeast Wisconsin in the recent past. I was going to be a customer myself but questioned modifications the vendor was making. That drill design was attached to a 3-point hitch and had tires at the end of the drill. I had many concerns about this, as did Dr. Baker. The openers need to maintain a certain angle relative to the ground. A huge amount of weight would be placed on the hitch. The Baker design has the tool bars on either side of balloon tires to minimize compaction and uses a draw bar hitch. To achieve the down force provided, the drills weigh a lot, so this design is sensible and proven in the larger drills in widespread use now. The new smaller drills are being made in New Zealand under the supervision of Dr. Baker.
Just compare the specs of a Great Plains, and there is no comparison. Downforce is very small an applied uniformly across the drill openers rather than independently. The slots are simple and the seed pours into the slot. The features found in large precision ag type drills are now available for a smaller farm with Cross Slot. The price is still high but more affordable now.
I encourage you to look at crossslot.com and contact Dr. Baker.
The 9 slot does require a tractor with at least 100 hp and good hydraulic flow for the pneumatic seeding and fertilizer delivery. Also case drain which is not common on smaller tractors.
NDSU built their own drill with Cross Slot openers about 20 years ago and were happy with it but for experimental plots it was really too large. I have been in contact with them. You can find info online related to this drill. I think the new design is very compact by comparison. Dr. Baker said cone seeders could be added if desired for breeding applications. As a scientist myself, I find being able to talk with the engineer at the design level very satisfying. Normally one is limited to a salesperson.
-Sally Leong, Avoca, WI
Follow-up Question: I’m purchasing a small no-till drill for research and demo plots. Any thoughts on Great Plains?
Response: If someone is in the market for a new drill that can handle anything, Esch makes an excellent unit that runs variable speed sponge meters. It can plant anything. I believe they can run 8 mph now. Unfortunately, they max out around 12 feet and are mostly out east. Built in Pennsylvania.
Response: I wouldn't be that worried about seed settling out if you have a grass box for when you're planting dense, small seed like brassicas and clovers. Keep the large seed tank full! I only see separation problems when it gets way down to the bottom. Grass seed can always be a problem without something to mix it with.
A smaller, lighter and cheaper option that is still quite versatile is the 5100 to 5400 Case and Case IH drills. Hydraulic down pressure on the row units means you can do min to no-till stuff in some conditions, but you don't need to compact the soil to oblivion in tillage situations with a monstrous JD 750. It's a great drill but overkill in most tillage situations in my opinion. I can use my 5100 for interseeding corn, too.
Response: I use a regular old 8300 Deere grain drill to no-till frost seed oats, clover, alfalfa, multiple grasses and brassicas, along with everything else that I want to have as my multi-species new seeding (20-way blend this past spring) right onto untouched soybean stubble that already has winter rye planted onto it no-till with the 750 the fall before. Has worked beautifully for at least 5 years now. The old 8300 has broken down force springs, the discs are all worn out, big gaps between the discs… certainly nothing fancy at all… has seen a lot of acres. I’m just using it to get really even seed distribution across the field. No grass seeder box used, just mix it all together in the main box and go. This past season I had the best new seeding that I’ve ever seen in my entire life… and that includes going back to when it was all done with full tillage. I’d never consider going back. I’ve no-till frost seeded covers onto unchopped untouched cornstalks this way and have been very happy with it. The key is to get them out there really early… and to have really early growing species in the mix, so they are the first things to start growing as the temps warm up. Winter rye and oats, for example. I prefer planting my frost seeding this way right through a few inches of snow even.
Follow-up Question: Anyone use a 750 (or new model) for seeding an alfalfa hay field? As I had said, we don't, but I'm curious if others have with success.
Response: I also have a 750, but I do have the small seed attachment. The small seed box works great for clovers but not great for grasses. I do really love that drill. I use it a lot.
Response: I have a 750 Deere and like it very much. I don’t have the grass seeder attachment… and don’t feel I have a need for it at all. I use an old mixer mill to blend everything together, works great, I don’t seem to have any separation in the big seed box as I go, and I have everything from the smallest to large like soybeans, etc. Just set your depth to “about average”… kind of in the middle… and don’t worry about it. Clover, grasses, everything all together right into the seed trench.
Response: I don't know how big your farm is and whether you are looking at new or used, but this is something I've been keeping my eye on over the past few years: https://www.cleanseedcapital.com/. It has five tanks and each row can vary the rate of any of those products. I haven't come across anything like what you are looking for so I'm curious to hear of anyone else's experience.