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Cutting the canopy

04/05/2011 @ 2:41pm

When most people see a 40-year-old detasseling machine, they think of the past. When Brother Nick Renner saw one, he thought of the future.

Renner didn't want to detassel corn, however. Instead, he wanted to cut the tops out of commercial corn while simultaneously seeding cover crops.

Renner, 67, has had a lifelong commitment to soil conservation. When he was 19, he joined a group affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. (See sidebar on next page.) And for 43 years he and another brother farmed 1,099 acres of tillable ground near Carthagena, Ohio, that belongs to the group. Today, he oversees that land.

“We've no-tilled since 1975,” says Renner. “And we have been 100% no-till since 1985. I thought we had it figured out, but now I think we need to move up one more notch with cover crops. Some of it is a little bit rolling.”

Timing has always been a problem with cover crops. “I could never figure out how we could get the corn off in time to put something else out there to grow,” he says. Something that would protect the ground from erosion, loosen the soil, and scavenge nutrients.

In west-central Ohio, most cover crops need to be seeded before corn is harvested, typically in late September or early October. For years, people have tried to aerial seed cover crops with mixed results. If it rained at the right time, something usually grew. If it didn't rain at the right time, almost nothing grew.

Renner figured that if he could get a cover crop seeded in late August or early September, about when farmers are filling silos, he'd be adding six weeks to two months to the cover crop's growing season without hurting the corn.

That's what led to the machine shown left. It has a Gandy air seeder mounted on the back. Seed tubes run from the manifold on the Gandy unit to the toolbar on the front of the modified detasseling machine. The outlets from those tubes are only about 10 inches off the ground. That way, all the seed reaches the ground instead of getting hung up in the foliage, as often happens with aerial seeding.

Then, the blades on the detasseling machine cut the tops out of the corn plants a few inches above the ear. That foliage drops down on top of the seed and forms a mulch that traps moisture and increases the chances of getting a stand.

Although mulching the seed was his main goal, Renner thinks there are two other good reasons for cutting the tops out of the corn. One reason is it lets the grain dry out more quickly because more sunlight reaches the ears and there is more air movement around them. The other reason is it reduces the risk of lodging.

Renner purchased the well-used detasseling machine for $1,500. That, however, was just the first step in creating his proof-of-concept seeder.

“I did most of the work,” says Renner, “but I had a mentor.” That mentor is his “good neighbor and good friend,” Willard Dahlinghaus. “He has a genius of a mind when it comes to mechanics. I had him think it through with me,” says Renner.

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