How NZ Contractors No-Till 3000HA/Year With A 3M Seeder

By Thierry Stokkermans

There is one country where some contractors seed 3000 hectares per year with a 3 metre wide drill, and it is New Zealand. It is not a country of wide plains… most paddocks have odd shapes. How do they do this?

New Zealand has a mild oceanic climate and numerous mountains. Their climate allows the grass to grow all year long. They stock sheep and cattle, for the meat and the milk. There is some cash cropping but arable farms are uncommon, most farms are all grass or mixed. In this pedo-climatic environment and with this farming industry, it is possible to establish new crops 10 months a year. The limitation is a winter break of about 2 months. The NZ seeding calendar is the following:

• Towards the end of winter, farmers will seed spring barley, spring peas and some pastoral mixes such as plantain-clover.

• During the spring, they seed grassing crops to get through the following winter such fodder beet, kale and turnip. This is followed by corn seeding.

• Through the spring, temperatures are getting warmer and seeding get higher and enters mountainous areas.

• Early summer, the high pastures (up to 1000 metres) are reseeded with pluriannual plants such as clover and ryegrass.

• During summer, the seeders will follow the combine harvesters to seed fodder crops in the stubbles and produce a maximal amount of feed for the winter.

• Towards the end of the summer, Oil Seed Rape (OSR) might be seeded but it is a marginal crop in this country and many farmers will reseed older pastures to gain productivity and maximise fodder production the following years.

• Finally, during the autumn, cereals crop will be established and the last fodder crops will be seeded in newly available land such as corn stubbles for example. 

Due to its mild climate, its crop diversity and the landscape, crop establishment jobs are spread over the year and a large number of contractors offers custom-seeding to their customers. Some contractors seed a few hundred hectares with a single machine, other seeds more than a thousand hectares and several seed 3000 hectares with a single 3 meters wide rigid drill. A 3m machine travelling at 12- 13km/h can easily cover 3 hectares per hour. But when the field has an odd shape or the slope is so steep that it is only possible to seed it downhill, the productivity drops quickly. And after adding the road time, the maintenance and talking time with the customer, the tractor will operate about 1500 hours a year in front of the seeder, keeping one man busy all year round.

Many contractors seeding more than 2000ha per machine per year focus on two elements: agronomic support and quality of seeding. The contractor frequently visits their fields when plants are emerging – it is an agronomic and customer relationship task they commit to. This has several positive points: observing successes and problems; sharpening agronomical knowledge; improving the quality of their work; and getting to know the customer and gain their confidence. After a while, the farmer sees its contractor as an expert and a consultant in seeding and, in this livestock farming country, they can give them the role of decision maker for crop establishment.

Those contractors work under no-tillage regime and operate Cross Slot seeders. In New Zealand, some farmers plow, other do alternative tillage (e.g. min-till) and a number goes no-till. Looking at the machinery, the market offers the same seeders as in Europe such as John Deere, Great Plains or Aitchison (the last one is a kiwi manufacturer). Some contractors propose a complete tillage process, some offer no-till with a John Deere or an Aitchison. But the only one who managed to use their seeder 1000 hours per year and more are short frame Cross Slot seeder owners.

The main reason is the Cross Slot capacity to pass all year round in all terrains and, therefore, to allow a high fodder and dry matter productivity. The pro of a short frame on a Cross Slot is that the two seeding beams are close together which make it easier to seed travelling sideways on a slope. Indeed, when seeding across a slope, the tractormachine combination tends to walk sideways (a bit like a crab), therefore a shorter machine often keeps working for longer and keeps providing good performances.

As a comparison, a contractor from the Waikato region owning a 6 meters wide John Deere 750A only uses its seeder on smooth fields in the autumn. The shorter vertical travel of the opener does not allow him to seed in older pastures which have bumps and holes. And the quality of the seed environment only allows for autumn seeding. Indeed, in New Zealand like in France, the autumn crop establishments are the easiest to succeed in no-tillage. In New Zealand like in Europe, the Cross Slot opener is heavy to pull.

Furthermore, to pull the machine on a mountain slope, it is important to upsize the tractor and the power. Kiwis mostly use 6 inches row spacing (or 150 mm). A 3 meters wide seeder has 20 openers. On a sandy plain, this will take a 120hp. Working heavy clay on the level it will take up to 200 hp. But New Zealand is a mountainous country and the tractor for such seeder is about 280hp. To provide good traction, the tractor has a decent set of tyres and is ballasted up to 45- 50 kg/hp. This adds up to a tractor weighing 14 tonnes – a weight that could give goose bumps but less scary than some of the fields where seeding is only possible travelling downhill.

The invoicing of a Cross Slot seeding operation is about 200 New Zealand dollars ($NZ) per hectare. It varies from 180 up to 220 $NZ depending on the area and the contractor. And for the jobs with extremely low productivity, such as tiny field and downhill only seeding, some contractors invoice the worked time (hours) instead of the area (hectare). Seeding operations with an Aitchison or a John Deere are half price. It shows that the difference in cost for the client is justified by the versatility, the seeding quality, the productivity gain and the agronomic support.

Looking at the financial investment, a brand-new tractor + seeder combination with 3m working width cost about 600 000 $NZ. The seeder costs as much as the tractor (or the opposite). To quickly find the efficiency of an investment, kiwi contractors apply the rule of the third: to be profitable, the yearly invoicing has to be at least a third of the investment. For the above investment, contractors will have to invoice at least 200 000 $NZ/year which is about 1000ha/year. 

For those contractors, the clients have different profiles and have different strategies. Some are engaged in Conservation Agriculture and want to improve their soil. Other wants to maximise short term profitability and get the pastures grazed until the roots (see picture). As any service business: taking the job means bring satisfaction to the customer. Those contractors understand this to the full extent and they are working for and with their customers. To maximise the return on their tractor-seeder combination investment, they are available and mobile. Working on Sundays is common practice. Most of their customers are within half an hour driving from the contractor shed but, sometimes, 2 hours of driving are required to visit a remote customer.

For reference: the current exchange rate is 1.93 NZ$ to 1 GBP£.

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