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Direct Seeding Systems in Germany and Europe
Michael Horsch

First of all I would like to introduce myself: I am a farmer and in our family (brothers and cousins) we farm several ten thousand acres mainly in Southern Germany and Eastern Germany. In 1984 I started a farm machinery manufacturing business, designing and manufacturing minimum till and no-till seeding and tillage equipment.

This company called HORSCH Maschinen has grown in 15 years to number four in seeding systems of Europe today and number one in minimum till and no-till seeding systems. We sell our equipment not only throughout Western Europe as well as into Central and Eastern Europe and United States and Canada. Actually here in this area we also have sold quite a few seeding systems in the last three years.

Now I would like to give you a quick update of European crop farming. Europe consists out of three parts:

  1. Very well protected and highly subsidized Western Europe (European Union) with a lot of small farmers round 20 to 100 acres mainly mixed farms and a growing share of bigger farmers that mainly concentrate either on animal production or on crop production. There is about 150 million acres of cropland in England, France, Germany and Scandinavia with an average smallgrain yield of 90 bushel an acre. Southern parts of Western Europe like Spain with about 50 million acres of cropland and 35 bushel an acre. With a subsidy of about $120 an acre per year a cropfarmer uses the classic rotation of about 50 to 70 % smallgrains (wintercrops mainly) 10 to 20 % oilseeds (mainly oilseed rape) and the rest is sugarbeets, peas and other crops. You can make a pretty good living as a fulltime farmer with about 300 acres. Our climates are very similar to this area with 200 to 250 inches of rain. We have sufficient moisture in March, April and May. End of May, June and July can be very dry. Our winters are normally mild depending on the area between five to twenty days of frost and some snow. Europe is very different to North America. First of all the farmer and especially machinery manufacturer - I can tell you - have to deal with a lot more stones and rocks in our soils than you have. In a lot of the Western European countries you can go for twenty miles and have a totally different soil and climate. Normally our soils are medium heavy with a normal clay loam content with a few pockets spread all over with very good soils. Black prairy type soils except a few places we don't find in Western Europe. Up to today we Western European farmers have lived somewhat in a farmer's paradise compared with the farmers in the rest of the world. The average farm is still small, 80 % of the crop farmers are still ploughing but 10 % use more or less intensive minimum till practices and far less than 1 % try to use no till or professional minimum till practices. The last two to three years this paradise situation seems to change dramatically. The pressure that WTO-organization puts on the European Union and especially the farmers, the need for expanding the European Union into Central Europe like Lithuania, Polland, Hungary,Czech Republic and so on and the pressure from European taxpayer that don't want to spend all these billions of dollars every year on farmers make a lot of European farmers think and change. In the next few years we'll see many of small European farmers go out of business. We also will see a small group of farmers becoming more and more professional by specializing and growing their operations and especially crop farmers will fundamentally change their cropping system.
  2. Central Europe (Polland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Rumania etc.) has about 130 million acres of crop land and yields about 50 bushels an acre in small grains. As you know Central Europe used to be ten years ago communistic - countries with largesized cooperative farms. The political system has changed, the farms and farm sizes have changed insignificantly, most of those farms are called private farms but still have the old system thinking in their minds and change slowly. There is hardly any subsidy so all those farmers are also competing like you with the world market and as you know the last two to three years because of the low grain prices also those farmers in those countries had to struggle quite a bit. So we also see there a second restructuring going on towards professional management of big farms and some smaller private farmers to try to make aliving with used equipment and working hard.
  3. Eastern Europe or the so called former Soviet Union (CIS) here we also see the changes of the political system the last ten years but most of the farms are still big cooperative farms very poorly managed with very low yields - 20 to 40 bushel an acre of smallgrain is actually quite high and the changes are going on but much slower than in Central Europe.

I hope this quick overview has given you a good understanding about European farming.

Now what's going on in Europe about minimum till and no-till farming? I am very proud to tell that my family is one of the pioneers of no-till and min-till farmers in Europe. Back in 1965 my father and four of my uncles had the chance of renting and buying a couple of thousand acres of cropland and got started farming away from their family home farm. Most of this land was poor land, low rain fall, cool winters and springs and very hot and dry Mays and Junes. Because a lack of good workforce and bigger machinery for conventional farming they started minimum till farming. Obviously min-till farming in those days was more than just revolution. It actually was seen as an assault against conventional farmers. The learning circle we went through was quite severe because nobody from the outside could help us. So we had to learn our own way about changes in soil structure, increase in microbiological activity, fighting weed problems (mainly grass weeds), fighting trash management problems, decease problems and problems with machinery that would not work in heavy trash or especially seed through trash. In 1972 some of our farms changed over to classic no-till. Here a quick definition of classic no-till: It basicly means to use no tillage at all and at the time of seeding try to cut a very narrow seed slot into the soil (mainly with a disk) and put the seed into the slot with very little disturbance. Again here we had to develop our own experience and again go through a very tough learning circle, but the good thing was that we had other farms that used minimum till practices so we were able to compare no-till with minimum till practice on real basis. Between 1972 and 1985 I think we worked quite good at classic no-till but we had to realize that we could not reach the levels of yield that we were able to reach with a perfected min-till system. The cost was still lower but the yields also were significant lower so the profits were less. The main reason for that was because of 70 % smallgrains in our rotation. We had to fight increasingly grass weed problems like brome, couch, blackgrass and so on. And fighting those problems increased the chemical bill significantly. Also we had to realize our Western European climate even though the winters are not very cold and the springs supply sufficient moisture in some years the no-till fields showed such a very slow warm-up of the soils that the crops could not catch up fast enough in growing stages compared with other fields so the consequence was low yields. Also slugs and mice have become a huge problem in some years and still are today in a no-till system. It can take out 10 to 25 % of your crop in a very short time if you don't watch. In North America they have never heard about slugs and mice problems but the problem has to do with your climate. On some of our farms today the average yield is up to 150 bushel an acre in smallgrains. A lot of our farms run 130 bushel an acre. To get into this high yield level and take into account our narrow rotation we have to understand that deceases or controlling deceases are one of our major concerne. In a classic no-till system with all the trash left on the surface and very slow decomposing acitivities in some years there was a danger of higher levels of decease pressures. Today fungizide bills are between $ 20 to $ 40 an acre and there is no way to do it with less at this high yield level. You also can imagine that even back in the seventies we were reaching yields in which we ran 100 to 120 bushel an acre. For classic no-till there was a real challenge especially when you followed winter crops after winter crops to put the seed through a heavy straw layer. Lots of people still today try to use disk systems but no matter how sharp the disk is and how much pressure you put on, straw will be always pulled into the seed furrow and cause germination problems.

Even though as a farm manufacturer apart from tine seeding systems we also have disk seeding systems. I think for no-till seeding with any kind of a disk principal is like going backwards. Farmers 10.000 years ago were much smarter than we are today in using Ąthe old stick" and pushing the seed into the ground. The classic no-till experience in Western Europe especially in our familiy is form the Seventies and Eighties at yield levels between 100 to 120 bushel an acre. Today the yield levels are between 120 and 150 bushel an acre and even more smallgrain in the rotation than twenty years ago. I see continously farmers failing with classic no-till, it takes two to three years for them to realize that this is a no-go. So what is the best cropping system for the future in Western Europe as of today and where do I see things go? This new cropping system we call Ąprofessional min-till" which is based on continously increasing microbiological activity in the soil and building humus. To make this system work the following principals have to be followed:

Rotation:

Rotation is one of the biggest mind busters of all professional farmers in this world. There isn't one single recipe that works everywhere. Theoretically we should grow one third warm season grasses, one third cool season grasses and one third legumes. There is very few places in this world where this rotation can be applied like in the Midd West of the USA. In Europe except a few special crops special areas we have the other extreme, we are locked into to 50 to 80 % of smallgrain in our rotation and again over 80 % has to be seeded in the fall and we have not much other rotational cash crop solution. That secure our income. The only advantage we have in Western Europe against the rest of the world is because of our climate. We can grow extremely high yields in smallgrains. But as assured you earlier there is a downturn especially in the fungizide cost. Apart from our neverending search for alternative crops we started to go into the details and tried to understand the actual problems that happen when you grow for instance winter wheat after winter wheat.

The long and short of all this is that we understand more today about the need of microbiological activity and the balance of certain fungus and bacteria in the soils (decomposis) that are needed to break down trash as fast as possible so that there is not enough room for pathogens to survive. We are also learning that our plant breeding the last twenty years has gone partly the wrong way. We have wheat varieties that have become so short that the flag leaf is up to the very end of the growing season higher than the heads and the lignin content which is a like a steel in the concrete has been increased in such high levels where it's very hard for the decomposis to eat the celluloses fast. We are also learning that through the excessive use of growth regulators and fungizides in the new early bred variety we are creating almost every other year a new so called unknown decease problem. My explanation for that is that the chemical and seed companies look at all the different pathogens like a big herd of wild dogs. In this herd of wild dogs there are big dogs, very strong dogs and there are small dogs that also can bite if the big dogs are gone. So what does a scientist do in the first place? He tries to get rid of the big dogs. So we have got chemicals to kill all the big dogs like meldue, curcosparella, septoria. So what happens we create more room for the small dogs to start biting like fusarium. We understand now that most of our fungizides (alzoles, strubilurins) kill a wide range of big dogs and worse also some of the decomposers. Killing decomposers in the alive plant means it takes longer to break down the straw. The solution today is that we have to look for varieties that are a little bit longer, use less growth regulators and have more resistance built in. Microbiological activity of the soil has to be increased by doing tillage not deeper than two to three inches and leave all the trash mixed in very shallow. Also use less and more selective fungizides and make sure with perfect harvest that all the trash breaks down quickly so the big dogs as well as the small dogs have very little chance to survive.

Residue Sizing:

Consequently residue sizing is another big issue because there can be a very high activity of decomposers in the soil and enough moisture if residue sizing isn't sized carefully (short stubble)and spread well and shallow worked into the soil to get directly into contact with the decomposers there will not be a very high break down activity. Other peopel say residue sizing costs money. I say perfect residue sizing is the cheapest and most effective single field trip you can do. Residue sizing with the combine is even more effective yet and cheaper. A lot of farmers think that combining is a very expensive job anyway and slowing down the combining process by dropping the header and using the chopper more intensively to get short chopped straw is a waste of time and money. Farmers that have this opinion are hopeless. With our very high trash levels we are even starting to change chopper blades every single day. We have seen the first inch of a chopper blade can go down in less than five hours. The fuel consumption in the same time goes up by 10 % and a quality of chopping goes significantly down. If you watch carefully chopped straw with dull knives you will also realize that the spread over the whole working width is not sufficient either. This has to do with the fact that straw that hasn't been cut completely and just has got a cink in it cannot be accelerated. As it leaves the chopper it will open like a parachute and just fall right down to the soil surface. If you watch how the first step of decomposing of straw takes place especially smallgrains resourcizing you will see that decomposing doesn't start from the outside, it starts from the inside of a hollow straw. If you take winter wheat stubble which is four inches high and take winter wheat stubble which is eight inches high and try to get it in contact with a little bit of topsoil, after a certain time the little bit of moisture you will see the short stubble will finally decompose four, five times faster than the long stubble. One reason for that is that because there are nodes every four, five inches on the straw just try to blow air through a long straw. You will find out that there won't go through the nodes because it's like a door that's closed. So fungus and microbacteria that sneak into the straw and try to decompose it from the inside will have a hard time to eat their way to those doors and this is one of the main reasons why it takes so much longer to decompose longer straw and therefore have too much resedue laying around that's not decomposed properly and so the pathogens have enough time to use this badly decomposed straw as a host to survive winterperiods and use it as a base of attack next year in the new crop.

Smart Fertilizer Placement:

We keep following very simple plant growth rules that say: the first 20, 30 days after seeding the size and the length of a main root system of a plant is defined. After that there is not much you can do about influencing what we call the root architecture. Conventional farmers think the only way to do that is with overloosened warm trashfree soils and perfect humus. This is a very expensive way and also can lead to the opposite - lazy, not very well developped main root systems. Together with a friend in America we've developped precision fertilizer placement system which enables us to place fertilizer two to three inches right below the seed, not to the side or with the seed. This fertilizer placement is very important if you want to influence the root architecture in a very early growing stage after germination. This technology we call PPF is like an instrument, like an expensive piano if you like. If you got an expensive piano and don't know how to play it there is no need for having an expensive piano. If you know how to play an expensive piano and very good at it and haven't got a piano it doesn't help you much either. So an expensive piano and knowing how to play it this is what really takes to understand PPF and influencing root architecture and using this for building very high yield potentials. Together with PPF technology we start to find out about new types of fertilizers which in small amounts can help you to achieve exactly what is described above. I give you an example: in winter crops we're using more and more a liquid urea nitrogen source which we mix with an urease inhibitor and in addition to that we use calciumchloride as a vehicle to take this stable amide nitrogen sourcing to the root system of a the plant. Using amounts between 10 to 20 units of nitrogen per acre and every year seeing a significant response in plant growth with this strategic fertilizer. A simple explanation what happens is that because this amide nitrogen source is stable and with calciumchloride small young root system can take it right up into the plant and since the root system is mainly built from protein and to build protein it takes an amine nitrogen so the plant has no need but has normally taken up an nitrate or ammonia fertilizer that first assimilation in the leaves builds it into an amide source she got it right there the young plant starts to build root system rather rapidly with little vegetative growth or leaf growth. This leads to a very strong root system which always shows in a very dry and hot May and June that those plants which had started with an amide fertilizer yields are between 10 to 30 % more than started with normal nitrogen sources or normal fertilizer methods. Smart fertilizer placement or PPF-technology is still in a very early stage in Europe. Energy and fertilizer have have become very expensive nor. Because that there is a huge potential for this technology not only cutting fertilizer bills by 20, 25 % - also increasing our yield potentials the same time.

Seed Environment:

Traditional farmers think the most important critera for seeding is accurate seed placement. I also think priority number one is accurate seed placement but we are realizing that also priority number one is what an invironment you put the seed in. Especially in extensive minimum till or no-till scenarios. Where we used a disk sometimes we find out that you get very quick germination but as soon as the plant started to feed itself through the root system from the soil the vigourness in growth of the plant slowed down. The only way we found out about this is that we had a tine seeding technology and a disk seeding technology side by side in the same field and watching it through a couple of weeks. It's quite often the same result: a disk seeding system especially with very high pressure in the first ten to twenty days, it looks often much better because the seed to soil contact is "overperfect" and therefore germination initially is better as with a tine drill. Here the seed is scattered in a band and there may not be the best seed to soil contact to start witht. This positive impression normally turns around after four to six weeks after seeding where all of a sudden the tine technology - if the right tine technology was used - developped better. There are more vigorous plants, the tillering is stronger, root system development is stronger and so on. The explanation for that is "micro compaction" in the seed zone. I remember about 10 years ago in the corn belt a no-till-farmer told about his experiences he had made with a new no-till Maxemerge John-Deere-cornplanter. He had heavy soil, where there was moist drilling conditions after about twenty days when the corn was twenty inches high he could see a difference in corn height when the seed boxes were empty to the seed boxes were full. The difference in height was about 10 inches. This was quite obvious. Today we realize the row units have about 700 pounds downpressure per unit and take about 120 pounds corn seed in it. So the 120 pounds weight difference made such a big difference which I couldn't believe if I hadn't heard it more often since. This made me think but I couldn't do much with it till I saw similar effects with our smallgrain disk drills and tine drills as I explained it above at home. Today we know if this seed environment is not watched a yield difference because of seeding technology of 10 to 15 % is possible.The funny thing is that the PPF technology we are using is a tine seed placement technology. To produce a fertilizer band two inches deeper than seeding we also create a microloosening effect which in our tests over several years and several soils has shown even between different tine technologies like a "Stone-Age sweep technology" what some airseeders still use here - and an intelligent tine opener with a microloosening effect there is also significant yield difference because of better seed invironment. Especially in a very extensive minimum till or no-till scenarios where temperature becomes a limiting factor, a microloosening effect was very positive for early crop establishment.

Last but not least: Soil Surface Management

Soil surface management is my favourite topic. You cannot believe how uneven about 80 % of the fields are six months after seeding in Europe. Our traditional farmer think since they have been using reversible ploughs, ploughing ten, twelve, fourteen inches deep, and then go over with a ten, twelve foot power harrow pto-driven which takes a lot of horsepower to knock the clods down and level the soil and pack the soil in the same process this is the best. But this is the classic way how 80 % of the farmers in Europe work their fields. After this process seeding is done simultaneously and the fields look theoretically level. But quite a bit of soil displaced into the tractor tracks after a couple of showers the soil settles or heaves again. So they end up having on a 10, 15 feet cross section, two, three little hills that stick out three to five inches. It is impossible to go with this uneven soil surface directly into a no-till or professional min-till system unless you are applying a strategic levelling process over two to three years. This is how long it normally takes to get a sufficient levelness in our fields to be able to enjoy the advantages of professional no-till or min-till cropping system. You now may think I am exaggerating here but I also can see this partly here in North America that unless farmers have not understood what strategicly level fields are - this is the biggest stumbling block to make professional min-till or no-till work successfully.

It's very hard to give a clear definition what a strategicly level field is. Sometimes I make fun with farmers. I tell them if you can take your new Mercedes car after combining thirty miles an hour across your previous seeding direction and drink Coke you can start talking about a strategicly level field. Today in our professional min-till practices it is very critical how long your stubble is like you try to produce three, four inches stubble height if you had hills five, six inches high, how can you possibly do it without turning your combine header into a doser blade. Also precision tillage right after combining should be one to two inches deep to be very effective in terms of keeping maximum the moisture in the soil, get enough microbiological active soil thrown onto the trash and get enough stimulation going for weed seeds and volonteers that want to grow. You go four, five inches deep and you get four weeks of sunshine and you loose all the moisture for seeding also that you hardly get any decomposing going. As well volonteers and weed seeds which need to germinate don't do it before seeding. A lot of farmers think a perfect precision seeding system especially for smallgrains must have individual depth control for each row because they accept that their fields are uneven so they'd like to follow the contours with each seed row. Their preception is that they still get precision seed placement just because the opener that follow the contours and puts the seed on the homp the right depth as well as in the ditch. Every time I checked seeding depth in an uneven field with a perfect seed drill with individual depth control and especially high down pressure per row unit I find out that on the homps the seeding depth is about twice as deep as in the ditches. Sometimes I found seed even laying on top in the ditch. Why is that? Very simple - a homp in 99 % of the cases is always much more softer than a ditch, a ditch also could be an old tractor track or soil that has been settled through rain that washed it down that means it's harder and more compact so with the same down pressure you don't penetrate near as deep as on the loose homp. Years ago when we were still doing classic no-till we also observed that the weed population was different on hills than in ditches. But I also have to tell you that 25 % of my seed drill business is selling heavy disk openers with press wheel and individual depth control. So best seed placement whether you get individual depth control per row unit or segment depth control similar what airseeder systems are using - the most precise seed placement you can get is always when your fields are strategicly level and you don't need to displace soil to make it level. These are facts that have been proven so many times all over the world but I got the feeling the marketing departments of farm machinery manufacturers - and maybe I even should not be excluded - they are always trying to tell us the opposite and we farmers still believe in it. If you don't understand seed placement principals in relation with level fields - or soil surface management - I don't think any farmer in this world will be able to get the maximum yield from his field with the lowest possible input and the best weed control.

I hope this was an interesting and understandable report about professional crop farming in Western Europe. I also hope I made you curious and come to Europe and to look what's really going on. You are very welcome to come and see us - I can show you a lot more of what I have talked about and maybe there are certain things you can also learn from us.

So far I must admit over the last 20 years I'm intensively travelling to North America building contacts and friendships with farmers, with scientists, with institutes, with farm machinery manufacturers and so on - I learned a lot from you! Thank you.