With a keen eye on regenerative farming practices, George Sly of Horizon Agriculture is building bespoke precision planters and seed drills, catering for a wide range of crop types and establishment methods. Alex Heath reports.
Inaugurated in 2019, Horizon Agriculture formed after the sale of George Sly’s previous company of 14 years, Sly Agri.
Following the sale, the new company was established with no-till and strip seeding and cultivation in mind.
It has been busy bringing drills and planters to the market, using components sourced from planting specialist Precision Planting.
Mr Sly explains; “Our first product, launched last year, is the DSX drill. Creating the new company allowed us to apply all of the knowledge and hands-on experience that we had accumulated, to build an entirely new drill from scratch.
"The DSX is designed to move as little soil as possible during seeding, while providing consistent depth leading to strong emergence. Although able to work into cultivated ground, from the outset it was intended to work into cover crops,” says Mr Sly.
“The arable industry across the UK and Europe is certainly getting on board with the regenerative farming philosophy, which is not just the choice of drill, but the whole way the ground is managed.
“With less reliance on pesticides, farmers are having to rethink their drilling strategies, maybe planting at wider spacings so that mechanical weeders can be used to reduce weed burden, growing more companion crops or considering which areas of the farm are worth investing inputs into, making them more profitable by being more precise with resources.
“To this end, we are developing machines that use technology to give usable data and make informed decisions on behalf of the operator when putting seed in the ground,” says Mr Sly.
An OEM agreement with Agco-owned, Precision Planting, allows Mr Sly’s company to integrate the technology developed by the seeding specialist into the whole of the Horizon portfolio, with both drills and planters getting features developed in the USA.
“The US seeding machines are ahead of European-built machines, in terms of knowing where the seed needs to be placed, and offer more flexibility to ensure it is in the right place.
"Planters in regions of the US typically only plant two crops; maize and soya, so the farmers and manufacturers have a wealth of knowledge about the best practices and in turn have developed a range of options to suit soil types, which means we have a number of tools at our disposal when building bespoke machines.”
Precision Planting initially started by modifying existing machines to optimise them in the state of Illinois.
Subsequently, it has developed its own range of components that can be retrofitted to other manufacturer’s machines.
Horizon has incorporated some of the components into its DSX drill, including SeederForce which uses load cells on the row units of the drill to measure how much weight is on the gauge wheel.
Mr Sly explains; “In a lot of situations, having too much down force is a bigger issue than not having enough.
Especially in no-till situations, operators are often worried about penetrating the ground, so apply too much pressure. This creates a layer of compaction down the side of the seeding slot, blocking the path of emerging roots, leading to slow establishment.
“With SeederForce, each row unit has a load cell on it and the downforce is adjusted based on the feedback, exerting more or less force to penetrate through the tractor’s wheelings for example, without affecting the other coulters.
"The operator sets the required pressure and the drill will automatically adjust it when harder or softer soils are encountered.”
Mr Sly says data captured by technology has to be easy to understand, practical and allow for informed decisions to be made on the back of it.
Making informed choices of where the seed should be placed cannot be accurately ascertained across every meter of a field using traditional methods, with many factors causing variability.
However, Precision Planting’s SmartFirmer is another weapon in the arsenal that measures several variables and allows the operator to adjust a host of parameters.
Able to be fitted to the DSX grain drill and the firm’s range of PPX-N precision planters, it is essentially a sensor in the seed firmer.
“As the seed is pressed into the bottom of the seeding slot, temperature, moisture, organic matter and the cleanliness of the slot are all measured. Different wavelengths of light are emitted from the firmer, depending on how much is absorbed by the soil and how much is returned to the sensor - it paints a real-time picture of what is going on in the soil,” he says.
Seed needs to be placed into moisture for germination, but this can vary greatly in a field, especially with changing soil type, says Mr Sly.
Data gathered from the SmartFirmer can be used to change the depth the seed is placed, getting it into adequate moisture.
Likewise, temperature has a bearing on the speed of germination, with some soils lying colder than others.
Again, depth can be altered to place the seed into the warmest part of the profile.
Allowing the farm to save inputs is also one of the big benefits of employing tech says Mr Sly. With the firmer, organic matter is measured.
A strong correlation between organic matter levels, moisture retention and nutrient availability is known.
Mr Sly suggests areas of a field with better quality soil can be planted at a higher seed rate, in addition to savings on fertiliser usage at planting using the FlowSense metering system.
Gathering all the data and controlling the drill or planter is Precision Planting’s 20/20 terminal.
The terminal will record all the drill’s parameters gathered from the sensors throughout the implement, formulating maps that can be overlaid on top of one another to see what factors have influenced germination and ultimately yield.
Mr Sly says this becomes a powerful tool when used in conjunction with YieldSense on the combine, which uses a flow sensor at the top of the clean grain elevator to measure all of the crop as it comes off the paddle.
When moving the 20/20 terminal from the drill to the combine, maps ascertained by the combine for yield can be superimposed onto drilling maps to give instant answers to any variation, says Mr Sly, allowing planning for the following season as soon as the crop has been harvested.
The Precision Planting components are incorporated into Horizon’s frames, designed in house with manufacture out-sourced to a local fabrication company.
Horizon is now using Agco-built shanks on its precision planters, for durability and ease of adjustment, although the parallel linkages are made in house, as the company is reducing the interrow spacing, requiring a narrower setup.
Its new planters will be able to work with a row width of 375mm for combinable crops or 750mm with electric row lock up for maize-type crops.
“The tie up between Precision Planting and Horizon is one that offers farmers and contractors multiple options, with the ability to add as much or as little technology as they want,” says Mr Sly.
He adds that with the design of the drills and planters being modular and having holes and fixing points for the full suite of technology offered by Precision Planting, at a later date, extra components can be integrated.