Are you curious about switching to direct seed farming? Let’s look at the most recent economic analysis and producer experiences that compares the costs and benefits of conventional tillage (CT) to direct seeding (DS) with the help of Kate Painter PhD, an Extension Educator at the University of Idaho.
Let's start with the costs. Machinery is the biggest barrier if you are considering the switch to DS. The drills are expensive, sometimes require a higher horsepower tractor, and repairs can be costly, but the drills are more precise than CT equipment. There is a comparable average cost between DS and CT when it comes to controlling weeds and field operations. DS relies on herbicides instead of tillage to control weeds, but the variable costs of labor, fuel, lubricants are higher for CT as it requires more passes to weed and seed the land (Graph 1). Fixed costs like depreciation are similar because even if the DS equipment is more expensive, there are less pieces of machinery used for less time each season.
Now if you’ve decided to give DS a try, will you make a profit? When looking at average returns over variable cost for the first year, CT is about 25% more profitable (Graph 2). This can vary depending on if the producer is renting equipment and the condition of the fields. Yields for both systems were similar and this simple comparison of profit doesn’t show the entire suite of DS benefits. One of the most relevant benefits in our current drought is that direct seeding may increase organic matter and the water holding capacity of the soil. So, over time, increased moisture should improve yields and the profitability gap could narrow or disappear. Other benefits include keeping valuable topsoil, reducing wind and water erosion, reducing unhealthy dust, and keeping the land in production for future generations. We thank the WA Dept. of Ecology for funding this important research.