Chairman & Editorial Director,
Lessiter Media Inc., Brookfield, Wis.
Vice President Sales & Marketing,
Ingersoll Tillage Group, Hamilton, Ont.
Pictured Above: “At farm shows in Brazil and Argentina, it’s hard to find much tillage, it’s pretty much all no-till,” says Roger Murdock (right), in response to Frank Lessiter’s (left) question on worldwide tillage trends during a sitdown at Lessiter Media’s offices. “No-till drills and planters are gaining strength. New Zealand has moved to minimum tillage, South Africa is really promoting strip-till. Yes, an increase in conservation practices globally, I would say.”
Roger Murdock: Tillage is probably the most important part of the whole farming practice, because if you don’t have a proper seedbed and get that seed placed properly, you’re not going to get good germination. So it’s very rewarding to dig in the dirt, if you will, and develop products to handle the new farming practices. Back in the 1930s, I believe an American farmer fed 4 people; today it’s estimated that they feed about 165. So farming practices are going to have to change to keep up the with the world population demands. Each square foot of the earth needs to be more productive to feed everybody.
Frank Lessiter: If we’re going to feed the world with a bigger population by 2050, we’ve got to make major changes. And you know for years we thought the highest corn yield you could get was 300 bushels, and now last fall a guy won the National Corn Growers Assn. contest with a yield of 543 bushels per acre. At one time scientists used to say we’ll never get over 500, and here’s a farmer doing it. Now, whether it’s practical on a big basis or not, at this time we don’t know, but he’s done it.
Murdock: Farms have gotten bigger. I remember talking to a farmer in Russia, and we were looking at some tillage stuff that he had. He had two big 4WD tractors. And we were looking out across this field and I said, “Well, how far does this thing go?” And he said, “Well, my two hired guys are going to drive 10 hours in one direction. And when they get to that 10 hours, I have a cabin there and there’s two other guys there. Those two guys will jump in that cab, put some fuel in the tractors and come back in 10 hours.”
That’s how big the farm was. A lot of these are the old Soviet government co-op farms that were turned over to private citizens, so you know there’s a massive amount of acreage.
Lessiter: At the second National No-Tillage Conference we held in St. Louis 25 years ago, we had an Illinois farmer speak who had gone to Belarus to try to sell them on the no-till system. They had around 10,000 acres. That was one of those collective farms that had 250 people. The farm manager finally said to him, “Look, I really believe in this no-till system, I can make it work, but what am I going to do with these 250 guys around here if I go to something like that? I’ll have nothing for them to do.”
“It appears that the optimum window to get these hybrids planted every year gets smaller and smaller, so everybody keeps up with the frenzy and has to increase the speed…”
– Roger Murdock
So you’re in the coulter business. When no-till got started in the early 70s, we had bubble coulters, 13-wave coulters, and now we’ve got some no-till planters today that aren’t even using coulters. What’s happened with the way coulters have changed in the last 20 years or so?
Murdock: They had to get more aggressive on the edge. It’s very important that the edge stays sharp because we’re trying to manage more residue, and it’s only going to continue. We talked about 200-, 300-, hopefully 500-bushel yield on corn. So as you increase the yield, you increase the residue, and you know it’s got to go somewhere. Ethanol tried to use all that cellulosic material, but for most acres that residue had to be managed on the field.
Lessiter: We’ve got high-yielding no-till farmers who say they wouldn’t take $100 per ton for the residue because they think it’s so valuable to their soils. So those guys are going to figure out a way to cut through it and make it work.
Murdock: There’s also speed. Not only tillage, but planters have increased in speed. It appears that the optimum window to get these hybrids planted every year gets smaller and smaller, so everybody wants to increase the speed. Of course, weather plays a big factor, so any time you have speed, if you hit something at 4 mph vs. 8 or 12 mph, there’s a lot more abrasion or damage that can be done at the higher speed. So the way we design coulters has to keep up with the changes, too.
Lessiter: You’re right about the weather window of planting. We’ve got farmers who are planting 1,800 acres of corn and they expect to get it in a 10-day window.
Murdock: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. I remember back in the mid-80s, Allis Chalmers came up with a new planter called the 390. The reason it was called the 390 is because you could plant 390 acres in a day and that was a huge deal back then. Nowadays you can do that in a couple hours.
Lessiter: So you sell to the manufacturers, but also getting involved at a deep level with supporting farmers’ knowledge and tech transfer. What is the philosophy of that?
Murdock: More manufacturers are looking at the big picture. They want to sell the complete tool. Not that they don’t highlight a component of the tillage, planting, seed, whatever it might be. But since we have the experience through our engineers and product people, and because we make products globally, we have a very good database that can tell us this product works in this condition better than that product. I think it’s because of our large and broad customer base that we’re able to glean some good information to help different OEMs fine-tune their product for the different farming practices.
Lessiter: What’s happened in tillage practices, I think, is most innovations have come from the shortline manufacturers, because the majors said “We got this planter, it’s going to work under every condition there is, this disc is going to work under every condition.” And the shortliners solved the need for something in the market and probably forced the majors into making changes.
Murdock: Correct. I think the majors and shortliners are putting together high-quality products. But I think some of the differences are that to get the high-quality product through these massive assembly lines in these factories, you have to have a lot of strict regulations, data verification, and so on. I think it takes the bigger companies a lot longer to adapt because to they can’t get up to speed and to the quality standpoint as quick. Where a shortliner, because it’s a smaller facility, maybe they don’t have to reprogram as many machines. All they have to do is have a couple people make sure this weld or this fitting or whatever it might be is in the right position. They can get to the market quicker.
I think your statement is true about manufacturers and innovation, because the majors had such massive numbers that this other stuff was like 1% or 2%. For them to change would have been very costly for their factory. But now I believe it isn’t because they don’t see the need. In fact, we see a lot of the major manufacturers going to smaller runs, but I just don’t think their manufacturing processes can adapt as quickly. But I truly believe that we’re putting out the best product that we’ve ever put out.