Turning Dirt! Part Five: Seeders – Chapter 2

In this series of articles, the Whitetail Institute’s agricultural expert, Mark Trudeau, passes along his decades of real-world experience in farming and related matters to our Field Testers.  In the first three segments of “Turning Dirt,” Mark provided his insight to help first-time buyers select a food plot tractor and discussed tractor implements suitable for ground tillage, such as plows, tillers, disks, drags and cultipackers.  In this segment, Mark discusses seeders.

 By Mark Trudeau

Before we get into the second chapter of our two-part discussion of seeding implements, I want to make one point clear:  An inexpensive broadcast seeder is all most folks will ever need to put out Imperial seeds.

The “Turning Dirt” series of articles is just meant to give folks some basic information about the broad range of different equipment types that are out there, and that’s why they include information on complex equipment as well as simple implements.   But that is not intended to suggest that you must have anything more than just a simple broadcast seeder.   Frankly, a simple, shoulder-carried broadcast seeder is all most of us will ever need to do a great job of seeding Imperial forage blends.  If you’d like to know more about the differences in seeder types generally, though, then read on.

In Chapter 1 of Part Five, we talked about broadcast seeders, drills and features they have in common.  Now we’re ready to take what we discussed a little deeper.  This is perhaps the most detailed segment we’ve done in this series so far (which is why I mentioned above that this is just for folks who are even considering specialized seeding equipment), so I’ll start by recapping some of the critical information from those segments.  If you’d like to go back and review the previous articles, they are available on-line here:  http://www.whitetailinstitute.com/info/news/.

Should you till your soil or not?  Some soils should not be tilled because of their structure.  Examples of sites that should not be tilled are slopes with highly erodable soil, and soils consisting of deep sand with a shallow layer of topsoil on top.  Tilling in either case can destroy what top soil there is.

Seedbed Preparation:  Most Imperial forage products should be planted in a “prepared seedbed.”  Generally, this means that before planting, the seedbed has (1) been limed if needed to raise soil pH to 6.5 or higher, (2) tilled, (3) smoothed and firmed to eliminate cracks, and (4) cleared of existing vegetation.  (Full planting dates and instructions for all Imperial forage products are available here:  http://www.whitetailinstitute.com/info/planting/.)

Seed Sizes and Planting Depths:  Seeds commonly planted for food plots are generally one of two sizes.  “Large seeds” such as oats and beans should be slightly covered by soil when planted.  “Small seeds” such as clovers, chicory and brassica should be covered by less than 1/8 to 1/4 inch of soil.   Some forage product blends have both large and small seeds in them.   For instructions on planting depth for a product containing different sized seeds, refer to the planting instructions for that product.

The Biggest Difference Between Broadcast Seeders and Drills.  Broadcast seeders, such as shoulder-carried, ATV-mounted and cyclone (tractor) types throw seed out onto the surface of a seedbed.  Drills physically place seed in a specific place, either on or in the seedbed.

Let’s look at the different seeder types and discuss what they do.

Broadcast Seeders

Without question, a simple shoulder-carried broadcast seeder is the most versatile type of seeder there is.  The reason is that the operator is directly connected to the seeder.  The operator has instant, real-time information about how much seed remains in the seeder because his arm is physically touching it.  It also allows him to instantly adjust how much seed goes out and how wide the seed is thrown simply by varying his pace and how fast he turns the handle.  And the best part is that they are also the least expensive to buy.

The following graphic and explanation show a great way to use a broadcast seeder.  This method will help assure that you get broad, even coverage with your seed and don’t leave gaps.

1.  Put one half of the seed allotted for the plot into the seeder bag.

2.  Walking north/south, and keeping about 12 feet between each pass, try to put that amount of seed out over the whole plot.  (The instructions that come with some shoulder-type broadcast seeders say that the seeder will broadcast seed out even as far as 24 feet, but I have found that leaving 12 feet between passes tends to provide the most even and uniform coverage.)

3.  When you have covered the entire plot once, then put the rest of the seed into the bag.

4.  Walk the entire plot again putting seed out, but this time walking east/west.

5.  If you have any of the allotted seed left after you have walked the plot twice, put it out walking just inside the perimeter of the plot.

Broadcast seeders are also available for tractors.  Referred to as “cyclone seeders,” these can be used anywhere you can access with a tractor.  They allow you to cover a lot of ground in a hurry, but they are not as precise as shoulder-carried seeders.

Every broadcast seeder is unique.  You need to observe what your seeder is doing and adjust your speed and path based on wind and where the seeder is throwing the seed.  Try to adjust the seeder before starting so that you will be traveling at a rate of about 5-6 mph when using an ATV seeder, and about 7 mph when using a tractor cyclone seeder.


Planting large seeds with a cyclone seeder requires that another pass be made after seeding with an implement such as a disk or harrow to lightly cover the seed.   The main advantage of drills is that they can place seed very precisely in the seedbed in only one pass.  

Grain drills and hard-land drills both have “openers,” (pairs of round blades set in a v-shaped pattern), which make adjacent furrows in the soil as the drill moves along.   As the furrows are opened, the seed-disbursal tubes, whose bottom ends are mounted between the openers, drop seed into the furrows, and then chains or packing wheels close the soil.   While grain drills are designed to be used in soil that has already been disked or tilled, hard-land drills have an additional component, coulter blades or “coulters,” that pre-cut the ground ahead of the openers.  This, and the much greater weight of a hard-land drill, allows it to plant in un-worked ground.

While grain drills and hard-land drills are excellent for planting large seeds, they can be somewhat limited when it comes to planting small seeds.  Hard-land drills usually come with both large- and small-seed hoppers, but grain drills usually come with only a large-seed hopper as standard equipment.  Small seeds “can” be planted with a drill as long as it has the optional small-seed box, but remember  small seeds planted should be very near the surface of the soil.  

One way to do this with a drill is to detach the bottom end of the tubes from the openers, allowing the tubes to hang straight down and the seeds to fall straight to the ground.  Hard-land drills offer an additional way to ensure that small seeds don’t get too deep.  Specifically, they can be “floated” (adjusted with the tractor’s hydraulics to disturb rate regardless of tractor speed, the rate at which seed is disbursed from grain drills and hard-land drills is dependent on how fast the tractor is going.   Specifically, the seed-disbursal mechanism on a drill is linked to the implement’s riding wheels by chain and sprockets.  The faster the riding wheels are turning, the faster the chain turns, and the more seed flows from the seed box.   This can help keep seed from being wasted the way it might be if a cyclone seeder is used on a narrow or triangular plot, or if the seedbed is so rough that the operator must frequently change speed.

Drills also offer great control over how much seed you put out and where it goes.   Unlike cyclone seeders, drills will not allow seed to move from the reservoir when the implement is not moving across the ground.  That’s because a drill’s seed-disbursal mechanism operates off the drill’s main riding wheels.   This mechanism only allows seed to move from the hopper to the tubes when the drill is in motion.

Keep in mind that it takes a lot of horsepower to pull a hard-land drill.  For example a 40 to 50-horsepower tractor should be able to pull a loaded 10 to 12-foot grain drill.   In contrast, it takes at least a 70-horsepower tractor to pull a loaded 8-foot hard-land drill without unduly straining the tractor.

Also, consider that the hoppers and drop tubes on both grain drills and hard-land drills are sized either for large seeds or small seeds, not both.  That can present problems if you are planting a blend that contains both large and small seeds. 

An innovative solution for planting blends containing both small and large seeds is Brillion’s new FPS-6 Food Plot Seeder.  Unlike a drill, the FPS-6 doesn’t rely on openers, tubes and closers to place the seed in the soil.   The FPS-6 has a set of light disks at the front, followed by two sets of cultivators, which are offset with the disks.  This does an excellent job of leveling the seedbed ahead of the seed boxes.  Once seed leaves the seed boxes, it does not drop through tubes.  Instead the seed falls onto “pans” (basically horizontal metal bars) and then drops onto the seedbed in a uniform pattern.  The FPS-6 is also equipped with a harrow and a cultipacker.  The tillage, seeding and finishing components on the seeder can be engaged independently, allowing the operator maximum flexibility of use.

Another superb feature of the FPS-6 that puts it far ahead of drills for planting small seeds is its micro-metering capability.  This feature allows the operator to plant tiny amounts of even the smallest seeds right where he wants them.

By now, you should have a good handle on the different types of seeders that can be used to plant food plots.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, most food plotters will never need anything more than a broadcast seeder.  If you have wanted to know what some of the basic differences are between different types of seeders, though, I hope you found this article informative.