For one farm, a brace of combi-drills from Alpego are proving invaluable at getting crops into the ground in challenging conditions, be it from varying soil types or temperamental weather. Alex Heath finds out more.
It may not be the most in vogue solution to putting seed into the ground, but the power harrow drill combination offers many farmers a ‘get out of jail free card’ when the weather turns inclement.
For Ian Tanswell of Manor Contracting, which farms in excess of 810 hectares made up of owned, rented and contract farmed land around the Dorset-Somerset border, the combi-drill is a valuable weapon in the company’s drilling arsenal. Mr Tanswell explains: “We have a large workload which covers a wide area, up to 12 miles from our base near Yeovil.
“In between is every soil type imaginable, with light sands, heavy clays, loamy types and chalky, flinty areas as well. That makes no one drilling strategy suitable.
“However, the combi-drill typically covers all bases, especially when you consider the quick changing weather we get in the South West.”
Crops planted include wheat, barley, oats, oilseed rape, as well as grass and ground worked ahead of maize drilling. The farming business has had a long-running affair with the combi-drill and now boasts a brace of Alpego-built machines.
The first arrived on farm in September 2017 in the form of a four-metre AS4 combination, made up of a front tank, distribution head and coulter bar, mated to the manufacturer’s DKS rear mounted folding power harrow.
The latest to arrive came during last year’s drilling campaign, where unprecedented wet weather made for a challenging time, says Mr Tanswell.
It is the Italian manufacturer’s latest Jet-X 300, a three-metre machine that was bought as an ex-demo unit from local dealers M.J Fry, safe in the knowledge of the performance of the original.
“Last winter was exceptionally wet and the windows for planting were very narrow,” says Mr Tanswell. “With our drilling to be done, plus that of customers, we were increasingly stretched with the weather limiting the opportunities where our Pottinger Terrasem C4 disc cultivator drill could be used.
“Instead, the majority of the drilling was done with the Alpego AS4.
“Needing extra capacity and pleased with the results achieved by the larger combi, we added the Jet-X.”
Both drills use similar components and have a near identical setup between the power harrow, packer roll and coulter bar.
This made the decision to opt for a three-metre secondary drill easier, says Mr Tanswell, as setting both drills up to run at the same parameters is easier.
In particular, he praises the coulter arrangement for its simplicity, but also its consistency when planting.
“The coulters are mounted on rubber ‘sausages’ that provide even pressure,” he says.
“On our previous drill, the coulters were mounted on springs and tended to place the seed at different depths, leading to uneven establishment.
“We have found with the Alpegos that emergence is a day or two earlier and the crop comes out of the ground much more even.”
Row spacing on both drills is 125mm, with the disc coulters spread over two banks.
Mr Tanswell says the distance (430mm) between the two banks has a massive bearing on how the drill performs, with trash flow being very good.
“We are able to drill when conditions are less than ideal, and we probably should not be going,” he says.
“However, if the customer demands we go, we are in most cases able to without too much drama.”
Mr Tanswell also says the 355mm concave discs fitted, self-clean well.
Setting the depth and level of the discs is easy, he says. A parallelogram linkage with turnbuckles either side adjusts the depth, while a second set of turnbuckles allows the pitch of the discs to be altered, ensuring both the front and rear gang are at the same depth.
Metering on both drills is dealt with by the manufacturer’s Dosal volumetric unit.
Mr Tanswell says this is easily calibrated, with a percentage difference over the previous calibration showing the accuracy of the current calibration.
Emptying of the Jet-X is also simple, with an easy to access hatch at the back of the metering unit, although, he says it would be better if the seed tube could be quickly removed, so seed could be blown into a bag.
The fan is hydraulically powered, while the hopper holds 1,500 litres, equating to well over a tonne, which is plenty on the rear, says Mr Tanswell.
While the three-metre machine uses a rear mounted radar to detect the forward speed, the four-metre version uses GPS, after issues with the radar.
Mr Tanswell says the three-metre machine is fine-tuned via the speed shown from the tractor’s RTK GPS, adjusting the pulses per minute ensuring accurate distribution.
A key feature of the Jet-X which also prompted Mr Tanswell’s purchasing decision was the manufacturer’s Turbo Rotal distribution head.
“Inside the head is a turbine that spins as it is caught in the air stream,” he says.
“Using centrifugal force, it throws the seeds to the edges of the head and down the pipes.
“When drilling on hillsides, we are sure that the coulters at the top are getting the same amount of seeds as those lower down, improving evenness across the field.”
While the farm warrants a second four-metre machine, Mr Tanswell says the three-metre is handier to use as a secondary machine, with less to attach when the pressure is on, and better in smaller fields.
Power is not an issue for the farm with a pair of John Deere 6250R tractors and a 6215R available.
Mr Tanswell says work rates for the smaller machine are 20 to 22ha per day, while the larger machine will do up to 28ha.
The RK power harrow onto which the Jet-X is piggy-backed, features 12 tine rotors.
Although the three-metre machine has only done a meagre amount of work so far, Mr Tanswell says the four-metre DKS power harrow has covered more than 2,500ha and is now on its fourth set of tines, averaging between 560 to 650ha per set.
The first farm Mr Tanswell drills in the autumn has unforgiving flints which soon wear out metal, so tines are changed each year after that farm has been planted.
Other than a trough problem in four-metre machine’s first season, which was promptly sorted, Mr Tanswell says the power harrows are well built and rugged, rarely blocking up and not too power sapping, even on heavy clay.
He did opt for the larger 570mm diameter PK6 toothed packer roller, offering more rolling resistance and better consolidation in light sands.
Height adjustment of the levelling bar is done via a single adjustable screw jack.
Removing the Jet-X seeding apparatus from the power harrow is a 10-minute job, says Mr Tanswell, with two pins and two bolts holding the system together.
A couple of hydraulic quick connectors are used to lift and lower the seeding bar.
The three-metre machine is IsoBus controlled and although it came with a Muller control terminal, it is run through the tractor’s terminal.
“The tractor terminal being touch screen makes it easier to use, rather than the rotary dial on the drill’s box,” he says.
“However, doing so makes the GPS screen smaller, so we may look at adding another GPS screen into the tractor at some point,” he says.
Tramlining is done with the drill, as the tractors have a higher level of pass to pass accuracy than the farm’s sprayer currently has.
Mr Tanswell says for the area and varying soil types the business covers, both for itself and its contracting customer, the power harrow combi-drill allows much more leniency on drilling dates, going as and when the customer, or the weather demands.
“The Alpego drills provide us with a consistent seedbed, with consistent emergence, which is all I can ask of a machine,” he adds.