Casting seeds in the air: aerial seeding takes flight

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

CONCORD - It was windier than normal for aerial seeding, but the Back Nine Aerial helicopters at Reinders farm in Concord were only providing demonstrations for the crowd gathered for the Farmers for Lake Country field technology day on Oct. 17.

Pilot Anders Vetch said they usually "draw the line at 10 knots," for aerial seeding. 

"A little bit of wind, five to six knots, is good. It helps the helicopter perform a little better," Vetch explained. "As far as seed application, guidance is set for a 10-foot buffer, so if the seed is moving a little, you're still getting good application."

Back Nine Aerial pilot Anders Vetch passes over a field at Reinders farm in Concord, demonstrating how fields are aerial seeded, during a field technology day on Oct. 17.

Back Nine Aerial Applications, owned by Dwayne Deakins, provided aerial seeding services for more than 1,100 acres in the Oconomowoc Watershed Protection Program this fall. With joint funding from the Watershed Program and a Producer-Led Group grant from DATCP to Farmers for Lake Country, projects within the Watershed boundary were fully funded, according to Darrell Smith, the Watershed ag project coordinator. 

"There were a couple farmers just outside of the watershed who wanted to take advantage of the helicopter being in the area, so they jumped in as well," Smith said. 

Farmers near the watershed area that paid to have aerial seeding done on their property paid an average of about $54 per acre, Smith added. 

Value of aerial seeding

Why pay for aerial seeding of cover crops? 

A big advantage of aerial seeding is seeding more acres in less time than with ground equipment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). 

Aerial application can be done when it's impossible to use ground equipment, such as when crops are still standing or the soil is too wet. 

Back Nine Aerial ground crew member Bryant Meinel hooks up the hopper for aerial seeding during a field technology day demonstration at Reinders farm in Concord on Oct. 17.

Smith said farmers want to preserve topsoil and the nutrients lost if that topsoil is lost each year. Seeding cover crops also improves water filtration, allowing farmers to possibly get on fields sooner. Crops are healthier also.

If a farmer can get nitrogen credits, it could reduce the amount of fertilizer used in future years, "but farmers are going to want to get experience with that first before they back off," said Smith. 

"We've seen some farmers actually reduce tractor fuel expenses after several years of cover crops and longer crop rotations"  added Smith.  "Getting through fields has been easier, which is a real savings."


While aerial seeding may allow for seeding, germination and growth of crops before the existing crop has been harvested, it is riskier than drilling seeds.

"The seeds need to be under something, under a bean leaf, find a crack in the soil, or something, to germinate. And they need water obviously," said Vetch. 

When Back Nine Aerial started aerial seeding for the project about a month ago, there were several weeks without rain. 

"There were a lot of people kind of wringing their hands hoping those seeds would germinate," Vetch said. "Luckily, with the rain we've had over the past couple of weeks it's been just phenomenal." 

Smith said there were some low areas within the project where seeds germinated, but on upland areas that were drier, "basically, the seed just hung out."

The hopper for aerial seeding is filled with seed and the flow rate can be controlled by the helicopter pilot. The hopper can hold 300-400 pounds of seed.

Now every field has sprouts coming up.

"It's an absolute risk," Vetch said. "You have to hit it at the right time. You have to have the right weather that germinates the seed, and everything that goes along with that."

On a soybean field there is a window of about three days from the time the leaves yellow - when the seed should be put down - until the leaves drop, explained Vetch.

"You want to get the seeds down before the leaves drop," said Vetch. "The leaves provide your cover so the seeds can germinate."

Application rates

Vetch said they are "playing with different rates" of application for different seeds.

"I'm thinking in the next year it will probably dial up what exactly is optimal for this cover crop thing, but right now it's very much in beta," said Vetch. "We're very much just kind of experimenting, seeing what we can get."

For land in the Oconomowoc Watershed Protection Project that was NRCS funded, the standard application rate of 90 pounds per acre was used, according to Smith. If a farmer wanted to seed at a different rate he asked for a variance.  

Self-funded farmers and those funded through the Farmers for Lake Country and the Watershed program put seed down at 60 pounds per acre. 

Bryant Meinel, with Back Nine Aerial, explains how the plunger works in the hoper used for aerial seeding during a field day event at Reinders farm in Concord on Oct. 17.

From what UW-Extension agents reported at the field day event, that aerial application rate might back off further in the future. 

"Which is great, because the hopper holds 300 to 400 pounds, which would mean in the future, we could get more acreage done in a single pass with the helicopter," said Smith. 

Back Nine

About two years ago, Back Nine owner Dwayne Deakins did some research that showed cover crops were going to become popular. He bought a seeder and outfitted a helicopter for it, Vetch explained. 

Screens next to flight controls are part of a guidance system helicopter pilots use when aerial seeding fields, showing where seed was applied and any strips that might have been missed.

When the opportunity with the Watershed Protection Program came up, "we had equipment ready to go, so we were able to jump on board and help them out," said Vetch. 

One helicopter is dedicated to aerial seeding, set up with an external load hook and bucket sling. Once the hopper is loaded and hooked up to the helicopter, the pilot can flip a switch which lifts a plunger to control how much seed is coming out of the hopper, according to Bryant Meinel with the ground crew. 

The helicopter is equipped with a guidance system that gives the pilot a marked line to follow and shows the swath as the bucket flies about 10 feet above the field. 

Back Nine's research shows that aerial seeding is "only going to get more popular," Vetch added. 

"It's been awesome," Vetch said. "It's worked out really well."