What do the machinery company John Deere and the plant breeding company Saaten-Union have in common? Customers of both companies expect their products to increase farming productivity. And both companies have product development cycles which last longer than 10 years. Therefore, they must both recognise market trends early, allowing these to feed into product development. With this in mind, the two companies started a large-scale seeding project, in an attempt to maximise the potential of high-value seeds by making storage more precise and improving growing conditions.
Hybrid cereals are an important market trend
The trend towards growing hybrid cereals has been increasing consistently for years. Barley and rye already come in a wide variety of cultivars, there aren’t many conventional varieties of oilseed rape left, and it goes without saying that maize, soya and sugar beet are hybridised. The benefits are evident. “For the most part, hybrids can cope better with difficult environmental conditions and can achieve 10% higher yields or more,” says Daniel Husmann, product manager at Saaten-Union.
Hybrids can cope better with difficult environmental conditions and can achieve higher yields
Daniel Husmann, product manager at Saaten-Union
To provide the best technical support for such trends, increasing agronomic capabilities using machines, digital solutions, and other services is an important aspect of product development at John Deere. To keep up with the customers’ high expectations of improved machine productivity, the machines are thoroughly tested in the production department and in the field.
Every seed must become a success
In addition to improved genetic potential, success of the crop also depends on the seed and crop management. Since seed rates are so low for hybrids, it is important to make sure sophisticated technology is used. A good fertiliser and plant protection strategy is also necessary to accompany the plant stock successfully through the season. Only if every seed and drop counts can agriculture have a more efficient and sustainable future.
For row crops like maize, John Deere already offers excellent technology to optimally position the seeds. Now it wants to bring this level of precision to small grains. With this in mind, John Deere together with Saaten-Union set up a field experiment which worked with a huge variety of seed quantities and drilling variations. The partners involved the entire production system. “The more specific the grain properties and seedbed conditions, the better we have to adapt the fertiliser and plant protection measures,” explains Mr Husmann.
How were the trials designed?
The trials were designed so that the effects of reduced seed rates could be analysed while adjustments were made to crop management as well. “We wanted to achieve the maximum economic yield, as well as the desired quality, with the lowest possible input use,” explains Stefan Kübler, agronomist at John Deere.
The locations chosen for the trials have very good soils. However, both fields are located in the rain shadow of the Harz mountains, meaning the average annual precipitation is only around 470–550mm – and often lower – with a remarkably dry early summer season.
The more specific the grain properties and seedbed conditions, the better we have to adapt the fertiliser and plant protection measures
Daniel Husmann, product manager at Saaten-Union
The plan for the trials included a conventional type and hybrid type of wheat, up to five seed rates, from 60-280 seeds/m², two fertiliser treatments with urea or nitrate-enhanced fertiliser (KAS), and three different plant growth regulators. Low seed rates were drilled with a Monosem NG planter, whereas for higher rates conventional volume-based drilling technology was used.
For half of the plots, a readily available ammonium nitrate fertiliser was applied as needed in three doses. The other plots received two early doses of urea, the effects of which are quite slow, which saved doing another drive across these trials and counteracted the increasing dryness of early summer. The diagram shows nitrogen quantities next to the fertiliser treatments.
Plant growth regulators
Different strategies were pursued for the plant growth regulators: Interrupting the dominance of the main stem (apical dominance) and stabilising the stem by making it thicker and shorter. One example of breaking apical dominance and shortening the stem length is the early use of Cycocel® (EC 25). Another strategy, such as the one-time use of a trinexapac product, specifically aimed to stabilise the stem by thickening it. Another strategy combined both factors, breaking apical dominance and stabilising the stem (eg with the product Prodax®, which contains prohexadion-calcium).
We wanted to achieve the maximum economic yield, as well as the desired quality, with the lowest possible input use
Stefan Kübler, agronomist at John Deere
Precision seeding showed significant benefits compared with volumetric dosing. But there are currently no machines available to put this into practice.
There are clear differences between the combination of fertiliser and plant growth regulator treatments. Higher yields in the urea treatments were due to the damp, cool weather of 2021, which reduced the escape of ammonia and facilitated good permeation into the soil. Regarding the plant growth regulator treatments, the yield increase of 4dt/ha between KAS/Prodax® and Harnstoff/Prodax® was particularly remarkable. With this variant it is also possible to save one application work step.
The protein values of the fertiliser treatments showed no major deviations from the mean. On the whole, this means a better efficiency in nutrient utilisation in areas with higher nitrate concentration in particular, a change to the strategy should be considered. Correctly applied urea reduces nitrogen run off and ensures long-term supply of plant-available nitrogen through hydrolysis and nitrification processes in the soil.
Mid-range seed rates boost yields and are economically sensible
Another interesting result can be seen in the comparison of yield performance in relation to the number of seeds/m2. In the comparison of seed rates (100, 160 and 220 seeds/m2) against both fertiliser types and strategies and plant regulator variants, the middle seed rate proved to be the most effective. An average additional yield of 0.2–0.3t/ha was achieved, which, assuming wheat is priced at €220/t (£183/t), amounts to an additional revenue of around €44–66/ha (£37-55/ha).
Combined with the approximately 27% saving on seeds, it is possible to achieve an increase in the gross margin of €50–90/ha (£42-75/ha) and more. Thanks to their genetics, most modern wheat varieties are able to compensate for differing seed rates and to achieve consistent results. This is especially the case for the precision seeding process, which was also investigated. However, precision seeding with extremely small seed quantities also carries a large risk – each plant must have a successful result. By contrast, sowing rates over 250–300 seeds/m² are only required or viable with very unfavourable conditions (preceding crop, seedbed, pests, etc).
The tighter the environmental constraints and more cost-intensive the production systems, the more precise the technology must be to favour optimal plant development. There are also high-performing varieties yet to be discovered. John Deere and Saaten-Union are working on making the most of this potential.