Sunday, March 23, 2014


We left sunny Switzerland and headed north into southern Germany where we met Hermann Schumacher, who was involved in research into the CULTAN system with the Dr Karl Sommer, the man who developed the system. CULTAN, Controlled Uptake Long Term Ammonium Nutrition, is based on using a concentrated band of ammonium nitrogen fertiliser in the soil that is available to plants on as needs basis. In contrast, where nitrates are used to fertilise, the plant doesn't regulate the uptake in the same way which can lead to excessive uptake and growth. 

Anhydrous ammonia drilled in prior to seeding is a classic CULTAN system, but is available in limited areas in Australia. Alternatively, ammonium sulphate could be drilled prior or at seeding, but the logistics of seeding high rates of granule fertiliser (475kg = 100kg N) is a issue. The third option is injection of liquid ammonium fertilisers. Ammonium sulfate dissolved in water is only 8% N, but when mixed with urea ammonium nitrate (UAN), 15% N is achieved. A stainless steel wheel with 12 spokes mounted on a boom sprayer has been developed to inject concentrated amounts of liquid into the ground 5cm deep at 15cm spacings. Units are spaced generally twice the row spacing apart. 

Although high rates need to be applied to achieve a comparable rate of N from urea, only one pass is required, it is not reliant on follow up rainfall and the efficiency uptake of the N is commonly 90%, much greater than the 40-50% used for urea. 

I know one of the biggest complaints I hear from cropping farmers is the amount of N being used on crops, so possibly the CULTAN system has some merit. I am keen to get the 3 CULTAN spoked wheel injectors I have a home up and working to see what happens in the paddock. 

Hermann and his wife Petra were generous hosts in putting us up for the night and giving us a tour of Frieburg and taking us to a great little Italian restaurant off the beaten track with the best Tiramisu. 

Tracey with Petra and Hermann overlooking Frieburg

Having left Frieburg, we headed north to Harsewinkel, home of the Claas family and agricultural machinery company. The factory builds headers/combines and jaguar choppers. We were the only English speaking visitors for the day and we had Willie Schultz, a 50 year veteran of the company and who grew up in a house (still standing) on the grounds of the factory, as our personal tour guide. Willie is almost part of the family having started his apprenticeship with August' son and after he retired in 1997, he has been involved in factory tours ever since. 

From beginnings in a blacksmith shop in 1913, August Claas and his two brothers founded the company that developed a knotter for binders that wouldn't break the paper twine that was in use following WW1 due to a shortage of twine. As Willie described it, the knotter was "the money maker". From there the family controlled company that has always focused on harvesting technologies has grown to a company that had a turnover last year of €3.8 billion (approx $5.7 billion) turnover employing 11 000 people around the world. 

The tour through the factory floor was fascinating - the logistics of keeping the supply of parts up to production (no more than 2 days supply of engines on hand) was impressive. The line can turn off 15 headers per day in a single shift and smoking is allowed in the factory whenever workers want! 

Which toy do I play with today?

From Harsewinkel we back headed eastwards towards Dresden to visit Ulrich and Beate Tink and their son Clemens at Seidewitz and Tomas and Astrid Sanders and their family Johan, Paulina, Sophie, Magdalena, Maria and Karl. We have met both families through Cross Slot conferences in the US and Germany in 2010 and 2012.

 They live 70km apart and there isn't one other no till farmer between them - they are shags on a rock, as are most no till farmers in Europe. Ulrich and Tomas both gave the same reasoning when I questioned then why German farmers aren't looking at no till. It's all about not getting off the tractor! The plough goes out to the field, followed by the cultivator, followed by the seeder, in an attempt to create consistent conditions, whereas no till is a little more dynamic than that and requires more monitoring. 

Ulrich needs both feet to get the shovel into the neighbours conventionally ploughed paddock.

Soil structure is completely different under cover crop and no till system. 

100 v 300kg/ha N applied with CULTAN in the fall/autumn - can you pick the difference?

With Ulrich, Beate and Clemens

Both farms have a wide range of crops sown in rotation including wheat, barley, field peas, faba beans, sugar beet, maize and soybeans, whilst using cover crops in between winter sown and spring sown crops. Cover crop mixes are made up of oats, faba beans, peas, lentils, phacelia, tillage radish, lupins, buckwheat, vetch and rye grass. One of the down sides of their adoption of cover crops has been the introduction of red fescue grass in some of their earlier mixes but which has ended up being a serious weed, especially in lighter soils. 

Ulrich seeds all his crops with his Cross Slot, even in the paddocks following where the sugar beets have been lifted (harvested = dug out out of the ground by a 60t harvester). Tomas has changed his seeding operations and is precision planting his sugar beets, maize, soybeans and canola with a precision seeder after the stubbles have had a Kelly Chain over them twice before seeding, while using his Cross Slot for cereals and legumes. 

Great minds must think alike because both Ulrich and Tomas have adopted the CULTAN system, with Ulrich contacting to local farmers (including Tomas), while Tomas is working on a new design frame for the CULTAN wheel based on a walking beam and a trailing boom. Tomas likes making as much farm machinery as he can - he is a former organ maker turned farmer/agricultural engineer who has made his own CNC machine for cutting steel 50mm thick. He is just trying to work out how to program it to make it work! 

Tomas and his home built CNC machine - picked up the frame at the tip!

Tracey with Astrid and Paulina on a Sunday morning crop inspection - their enthusiasm waned as the rain and wind set in! 

All the family minus Johan

They use a mix of liquid ammonium sulfate and UAN at rates between 500-1000L/ha (75-150kg/ha) although Ulrich has done some strips this year on canola in autumn/fall at 100, 200 and 300kg/ha to see if there is any affect on canola growth and to date their is no visual difference in the plots, which I would expect if we had used urea at be same rates. This is one of the benefits of the CULTAN system - the plant only takes up the N as required, as opposed to nitrate N where excessive early growth would be expected if the same rates were compared. Farmers are restricted to how much N they can apply in the autumn/fall to avoid leaching of nitrates over the winter, but Ulrich has done the rates to let researchers look at how the CULTAN system might differ. Currently they only use the system on wheat because in early spring to much damage is done to the canola, so being able to apply to canola in autumn/fall would be an advantage.

We got to see Ulrich's machine working (18m wide), applying 1000L/ha at 6km/h. 

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