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Harvest and plant cover crop in 1 pass

A Clermont County, Ohio, farmer engineers equipment to seed as he combines.

When Ernie Hatfield heads across a field with his combine, he’s not just harvesting one crop, he’s planting another one. Using some on-farm engineering, salvaged parts and a little inspiration from a children’s movie, Hatfield built two cover crop seeders — one attached to his combine corn header and one on his soybean head. His “Hatfield Seeders” put the cover crop seed on the soil surface and then cover it with crop residue. “In six years, we haven’t failed to get a stand,” he says.

Hatfield and his brothers, Dewey and Mark, farm near Bethel in Clermont County, Ohio. Their rolling fields are prone to soil erosion, but cover crops help hold the soil in place, explains Dewey. “It won’t be there if you don’t protect it,” he adds.

Leaving soil bare over the winter is a missed opportunity to protect and improve the soil, adds Ernie. “Look at your land as a factory,” he advises. “You want to keep it open all year-round.” He has also found that his wheat cover crop helps with weed control. “It really holds back marestail,” he says.

Before building his seeders, Ernie had tried aerial seeding of cover crops over standing corn and soybeans at yellowing. He got a stand of the cover crop, but he wasn’t satisfied with the results, because so much of the seed was caught in the crop canopy and the stand was uneven. Seeding as he combines avoids those problems and gets the cover crop started immediately after the harvest of the previous crop. He doesn’t have to worry about getting a planting window after harvest in the fall, he adds. “It’s good to know a cover crop is down and ready for a rain.”

Movie magic

While he was thinking through the design for his corn head seeder, Ernie happened to watch the movie “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” In one scene, the tiny, shrunken kids are riding on an ant. To convince the ant to move forward, the kids hold food in front of its face using a pole and string. That idea helped him figure out how to mount the seeder box and seed tubes above the corn head in front of the auger trough.

Ernie reused mounting arms he’d made several years ago to hold a corn head reel he used for harvesting corn knocked down by a windstorm. The seed box for the cover crop seeder came from a 30-foot Great Plains grain drill he bought for the price of the salvage steel.

To adapt the seed box from the drill for the cover crop seeder, Ernie cut part of it down and bolted it back together so it would be shorter and lighter. He mounted empty 5-gallon buckets in front of and below the seed box and suspended them over the snouts on the corn head. The buckets work as dividers for the standing corn.

Plastic pipes about 2 feet long curve forward from the seed box along either side of each bucket. As seed is metered out of the seed cups, it is carried by gravity through the pipes, which direct the seed toward the soil between the corn rows.

Aiming the pipes between the rows is important for seed placement, Ernie adds. Before he perfected the design, he was getting too much wheat seed falling into the header and mixing with the corn.

The seeder is chain-driven with a ground-drive metering wheel. It is attached to the header, so whenever the head is raised, seeding stops. The metering wheel can be clipped up for transport.   

Ernie’s corn head is also equipped with stalk rollers, which fold the cornstalks down over the top of the cover crop seed. A chaff spreader on the back of the combine also helps cover the seed with corn residue.

The seeder on Ernie’s soybean platform is also built using part of the salvaged grain drill seed box. He reworked it to make two seed boxes and mounted them behind the grain platform.

Like the corn head seeder, the seeder on the soybean platform is chain-driven with a ground-drive metering wheel. Angled PVC pipes attached to the seed cups carry seed to the center and edges of the grain platform to cover the entire swath, with rows spaced at 15 inches.

The seed falls on bare soil just after the soybeans are cut, and then crop residue falls on top. Ernie has noticed that his cover crop seed sometimes sprouts without a rain. “Minimal moisture is required because the seed is under the residue.”

Once they’re set up, the combine cover crop seeders run automatically as he combines, Ernie points out. “The learning curve is zero on this.” The only change to the combining routine is remembering to add seed, and Ernie admits he’s forgotten a couple of times. Normally, he and Dewey work together to harvest crops; so when Dewey brings a wagon to empty the combine, they also fill the seeder. For the corn head seeder, they back a pickup truck up to the header and Dewey does a little climbing, stepping up on the buckets mounted on the front and pouring in bagged seed. Eventually, they plan to add steel steps above the bucket-dividers to use when filling the seeder, Ernie notes. The buckets are working for the time being, but they’re not sturdy enough to support a heavy person, he explains.

Homegrown seed

The Hatfields save some of the wheat they raise to use for cover crop seed and plant it at a rate of 1 bushel per acre. At that rate, the seeder on the corn head goes about 15 acres between fill-ups, and the soybean unit goes about 20 acres. They seed cover crops on all their corn and soybean ground, which totals about 1,000 acres.

Besides saving money by building his own seeders, Ernie likes using his own wheat seed for cover crops because it keeps the cost down. His seed cost is the same as the market price for wheat, so he figures his total cost per acre is only about $5.

Wheat has advantages and disadvantages compared to cereal rye as a cover crop, Ernie adds. Wheat is harder to kill in the spring than cereal rye, but he prefers wheat —it doesn’t grow as tall, and he doesn’t want to have volunteer cereal rye popping up in the wheat he’s growing for grain.

Ernie has had such good stands with his cover crop wheat that he occasionally grows it to maturity, harvests it for grain and straw, then double-crops soybeans afterward. Last year, wheat he planted as a crop yielded about 75 bushels per acre, while some cover crop wheat he saved yielded 50 bushels

Last fall, Ernie planted his production wheat an inch deep with a grain drill, but it failed because of the wet weather. However, some wheat he planted as a cover crop on Sept. 20 last year came along well, so he is raising it to maturity to fill a grain contract.

To give himself a better harvest and seeding window, Ernie plants short-season corn and soybeans and aims to do his harvesting and seeding in September and October. However, he still plants the cover crop even if harvest extends into November.

Even if there’s not much growth in the fall, the wheat will emerge and tiller in the spring, he says. “You’ll still see some benefits.”

Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.

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