The move from a conventional to a direct seeding system influences four important crop growth factors:
These growth factors affect decisions on seed row spacing and seeding rates. Row spacing is the distance from the centre of one seed tube outlet to the centre of the next outlet.
Row spacing is related to nutrient placement, weed competition and sunlight. Seeding rate is primarily related to weed competition and available moisture.
As a result, row spacing usually changes and seeding rates sometimes change with the move to direct seeding.
Under the older conventional tillage-based seeding methods that used broadcast fertiliser, the best yields resulted from very narrow row spacings at optimum seeding rates for the crop and climate zone.
Narrower spacings gave the crop a competitive advantage over weeds for access to nutrients, moisture and sunlight.
In direct seeding, the ground between the seed rows is left undisturbed. As a result, fewer weed seeds germinate because they are left in the crop residue at the soil surface. Consequently, there are fewer annual weeds competing with the crop for moisture and nutrients.
In conventional systems, nitrogen fertiliser is either broadcast and worked into the soil, or it is banded in autumn.
With either application method, the crop and weed seedlings usually have about equal access to the fertiliser.
With most direct-seeding systems, fertiliser is banded. Usually, nitrogen is precision-placed at seeding time, about 1 or 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) to the side of the seed row or between two paired rows.
Thus, the nitrogen is more available to the young growing crop than to weeds, which are further away. This approach gives the young crop a competitive advantage over the weeds.
Row spacing affects seed bed utilisation, which is the seed row width as a percent of row spacing. (The seed row width depends on the type of seed outlet used on the planter.)
For example, a 12-inch row spacing with 50 per cent seed bed utilisation leaves only 6 inches (15 cm) unseeded between rows.
The optimum row spacing for your own direct seeding system will depend on the following:
Generally, if yield differences occur between 9-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch row spacings, they are small and may be offset by the reduced equipment cost (because fewer shanks are needed for a wider row spacing).
A wider shank spacing will also usually result in less plugging from straw. In addition, an air drill with a wider row spacing is easier to pull, so the same tractor can pull a wider drill, allowing more acres to be seeded in a shorter time.
Harvest row spacing can affect harvesting operations. With a wider row spacing, swaths may not be supported as effectively by the stubble, particularly in wet harvest conditions, or when crops are short in drier years.
Poor swath support could reduce the quality of the crop harvested. To minimise problems, swath at an angle to the direction of the rows, or straight combine (direct head) the crop.
When increasing row spacing, the seeding rate per acre needs to remain the same or slightly higher to achieve the same yields. Remember that this will result in a much higher number of seeds per row.
For example, when changing from 6-inch to 12-inch row spacing, the number of seeds per row will double, for the same seeding rate per acre.
With the increased moisture conservation in direct seeding, crop production potential may be higher than for conventional tillage systems in many areas. This potential may result in a longer growing period while the crop responds to the additional soil moisture.
To capture this potential without delaying maturity, it may be useful to increase seeding rates by 10 to 20 per cent when direct seeding. This decision will depend on the seeding rates presently used, the change in moisture caused by direct seeding and the relative risk of dry conditions in the area.