Developing a drone system to seed cover crops is an approach Tom Leitgen has been working on since 2015. Why not just use a drill to plant the cover crop seed in the fall after corn and soybean harvest? Or hire an airplane to seed the cover crop either after or before harvest into corn and soybean fields during the growing season?
Seeding with a drone offers potential advantages, he says. It’s a more maneuverable and timelier alternative to other aerial broadcast application options, especially for smaller acreages.
On their family farm near Garnavillo in northeast Iowa, Tom’s father, Loyal, contracted with a crop duster in fall 2013 to aerial-seed a cover crop of annual ryegrass. By the time the airplane arrived to seed into the standing soybeans and corn, it was mid-September, and the cover crop didn’t get a good establishment. “Our experience has been that crop dusters tend to be under a lot of pressure timewise to get cover crops applied,” Loyal says.
Inspired by his father
The Leitgen family are strong proponents of cover crops and other conservation practices, such as no-till, terraces and grass waterways. The father and son have been using Tom’s drone to seed those structures, too. “It seemed like developing a drone to apply cover crop seed would offer flexibility, especially for smaller-acreage farmers and allow them to get into the field quickly,” Tom says.
In 2014, Tom was working in Ethiopia, managing a seed processing facility. The firm he worked for was shipping seed to the U.S. for feeding backyard birds. He was inspired by his father to come home to Iowa and develop a drone seeding system for cover crops. Tom recalls his dad saying, “You know this new drone technology is coming to the marketplace. You have GPS experience that can be used with it. You should build a drone that can plant these cover crops in a timely manner.”
In 2016, Tom moved back to Iowa. He began developing his own drone system. “I studied what works and doesn’t work, and talked with farmers to learn more about their needs for cover crop application,” he says. He’s built several prototypes and tested them on nearby farms. This year he’s applied for a patent on a drone system he’s invented called AeroSeeder.
“Large drones were inherently unstable,” Tom says. “We had to overcome a number of aeronautical limitations and difficulties. But the real key is the software. A drone is basically a flying robot, run by a software program. We’re using proprietary software we have developed.”
Cover crop niche
“We’ve concentrated on the seeding market instead of the spraying market,” which is harder for drones to enter, Tom says.
Spraying is commonly done over wide areas, whereas many farmers seed cover crops on only a part of their farmland — those acres receiving cost share. “However, there is also potential for spot-spraying fields with a drone,” he says.
For now, the Leitgens are concentrating on seeding a preharvest cover crop into standing corn and soybeans. “Our goal is to perfect the seeding operation,” Tom says.