Corn School: Aqua-Till trades coulter for water jet

Ever consider replacing your planter disc openers with high-pressured water jets? The concept is called aqua-till.

The idea has been pioneered by the South Australian NoTill Farmers Association (SANTFA). Earlier this week, SANTFA research and development manager Greg Butler traveled north to Ontario to showcase the technology for farmers attending the annual FarmSmart Expo near Elora, Ontario.

Aqua-till retrofit kits for existing planters could be available in Canada in 2019, says Greg Butler.

In this episode of RealAgriculture’s Corn School, Butler discusses how his group joined forces with iCubed, an integrator of high precision robot technology, to create a high-pressure liquid coulter that has the potential to help growers better handle crop residue, and deliver greater planting flexibility and control during the rush of planting season.

Butler says the work started in Australia about four years ago when SANTFA began to look at the limitations of knifepoint and disc seeders: farmers were struggling with many planting issue – from penetration to residue hair-pinning and stubble management. “We didn’t want to make a slightly better tine or a slightly better disc, we wanted to look outside the square and see what other cutting technologies that were out there that we could use.”

Butler and his group began collaborating with Jeff Martel, who now works for Stoney Creek, Ontario-based iCubed, and aqua-till was born from this relationship. “It’s really about taking an established technology – high-pressure water jet cutting – and redeploying it to ag,” says Butler.

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So how does it work? Butler explains that liquid goes into an on-board pump that is pressurized up to about 50,000 PSI – SANTFA has been testing water and UAN fertilizer solution. The pressure is then turned into velocity as the water is released through a cutting nozzle at several times the speed of sound. The liquid slices through the soil and residue to create a seed trench. Seeds are then deposited in the trench before it’s sealed with closing attachments.

Butler says the cutting process has undergone considerable refinement and efficacy has greatly increased to create consistent seed-to-soil contact. The jet also provides ample power to cut residue without requiring the downforce that causes hair-pinning.

The technology has been tested in both dry and wet residue and it cuts wet residue better, notes Butler, unlike any other coulter or mechanical device they’ve tested. Row spacing is a key factor: “Obviously, wide row crops use a lot less liquid that narrow-row crops… so things on narrow rows are going to be more problematic than things on wider rows.”

Butler says most of the water cutting research has taken place in wheat, rice, cotton and sugarcane. In these cropping systems, the liquid rate varies from 80 to 235 litres per hectare. However, he notes that more research is required to provide an accurate liquid estimate for Canadian corn systems.

When it comes to commercialization, Butler says SANTFA is not in the farm machinery business, but he thinks the technology will be competitive and “cost is in the ballpark.” One commercialization strategy currently being explored is a retrofit kit that would allow farmers to put the aqua-till system on an existing seeder or planter. He estimates the cost to retrofit a 36-row corn planter at “well under US$100,000” for the core pump technology plus additional investment in row unit engagement tools.

Another strategy is to engage equipment manufacturers. They are currently work with NDF Disc Planters in Australia which is hoping to launch its first aqua-till enabled disc seeder next year. Butler believes this will spur other manufacturers to action. “We’ve still got a bit to work out with the system, but I would expect the first lot of commercialization to happen in Australia next year and a retrofit kit in Canada could probably start next year. We’re really not too far away from it.”

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