Broadcast seeding: A last-resort option may gain traction this season

It’s far from ideal, but broadcasting may be the only choice for some this seeding season

Conventional seeding may be out the window for some producers if conditions don't dry out enough to get planters in the field.
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All winter, many Albertan crop producers have had the distinct displeasure of driving past acres — in some cases, the many acres — they were unable to harvest last fall.

In a best-case scenario, there will be enough time to harvest any redeemable crop, manage residue, and still seed in a timely fashion. But some may have to consider a riskier seeding method such as broadcast seeding.

Keith Gabert

“Everyone knows the old adage: ‘You can have it fast, you can have it good, or you can have it cheap.’ You can’t really have all three at once,” said Keith Gabert, Canola Council of Canada agronomy specialist for central Alberta south.

“Broadcast seeding is definitely fast, but it’s unlikely to be described as a good way of doing things. It should be viewed as a plan of last resort for when the ground is just too wet and you’re going to make a mess with ruts or smearing the soil rather than place the seed nicely with a seeder.”

Logistics are everything at seeding, added Trent Meyer, executive vice-president at SeedMaster.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see people go with broadcasting, either with a spreader bar, a spin spreader, or another option,” he said. “And on the residue management side, you’ll see them utilizing methods they wouldn’t prefer because they don’t have a choice, whether that’s an additional pass with a heavy harrow, some kind of high-speed disk, or what have you.

“They simply have to manage what they have to deal with today, and they’ll clean up the mess tomorrow in terms of going backwards from a soil management perspective. Our company was founded on conservation, but we understand that this year isn’t like most years.”

Broadcast seeding covers a lot of acres in a hurry, and can allow planting of hard-to-access low, wet, and otherwise challenging terrain. That said, the risk of poor stand establishment is at least double that of seeding with a drill, said Gabert.

“If you seed into the ground (with a drill) and get that seed packed in nicely with good moisture, you can typically get adequate germination 99 times out of 100. You can get good establishment from broadcast seeding too — some producers blow on oats, canola, barley every year with good success — but there are more variables, so more risk.”

Broadcast seeding success depends on seed-to-soil contact, usually achieved via pre-seeding tillage or other soil disturbance as well as a post-seeding pass with a heavy harrow or disk. Establishment also requires adequate post-seeding precipitation. Even in moist soil conditions, a decent rainfall goes a long way towards firming the seed into the ground.

“I like to joke with guys that half an inch of rain after seeding makes us all look really smart,” said Gabert. “If you put on too much fertilizer, if you seeded too shallow or too deep, if you had to broadcast instead of getting those seeds properly placed, a rainfall tends to fix it all.”

Broadcast considerations

Broadcasted fields require crop input adjustments — increase phosphorus application rates to account for that nutrient’s inability to move through soil, and increase nitrogen because surface or shallowly applied nitrogen is more prone to gassing off (volatilization). Most importantly from a risk management perspective, increase seeding rate to achieve adequate establishment and reduce risk.

Farmers considering broadcast seeding should pre-think the logistics. It is much less stressful to cancel a booking with a custom applicator than to be a late addition on a long list of others requiring that service.

Finally, double-check crop insurance timing and establishment requirements. The application deadline for crop insurance is April 30. Certain crops, such as field peas and potatoes, must be seeded by specific dates to qualify for crop insurance. Others, including canola, wheat and barley, have recommended rather than required seeding dates.

In addition, “non-conventional seeded crops such as broadcast seeding are reject(ed) for insurance when the seed is not mechanically incorporated and conditions for seedling establishment are poor,” said Mustafa Eric, spokesperson for Agriculture Financial Services Corporation. “The crop will be rejected if it has germinated poorly and the plant stand is too thin to produce a normal crop. An acceptance or a special inspection may be conducted on crops that are broadcast seeded.”

Gabert recommends only broadcasting if the seeding window is very tight, fields are very wet, and more precipitation is forecast.

“Back in 2012, we had huge amounts of excess moisture in my local area — lots of producers were sure they wouldn’t be able to plant,” he said. “But that was the year the Slave Lake Fire took off due to wind. We got that same wind and within five days, the excess moisture just disappeared and seeding was right on time.

“You don’t need long with sunshine and wind to dry things up.”

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