Air seeders and drills are fighting for space on your farm. Both will change the way you think about planters.

The next planter you buy may not be a planter at all. At least not entirely.

Equipment companies are taking the best ideas from planters, air seeders and drills to come up with a "hybrid." But it's hard to know what to call it.

When AGCO released a multi-use 6800 planter in 1996, engineers tossed around a variety of labels: 'Central-Fill Planter,' since it offered a large, 60-cu.-ft. central hopper; 'NoTill Planter,' to reflect its heavy-duty rigid frame claimed to deliver consistent seed depth in no-till operations; or 'Multi-Crops Planter,' since it comes ready to plant three crops in narrow row configurations-corn at 30 in., soybeans at either 10 or 15 in. and wheat and other small grain at 10 in.

And it will only get more confusing. "The 'hybrids' right now, equipment-wise, are adapting the seed-to-soil contact and depth control of a planter into the wider frame implement of an air seeder, into a cheaper seed delivery system of a drill," explains Paul Jasa, extension engineer at University of Nebraska.

According to the companies we talked to, there's a totally new creature on the way. Anticipating what these design changes will entail will be the key to buying smart in years to come.

Forces of change. The reason these equipment categories are taking on each other's features can be summed up in three words: speed, seed and precision.

The average farm size has grown due to consolidation. Yet the planting window is as narrow as before. Those realities call for planting technology that can get you across the field even faster. Either through a wider framed implement that can span more acres in one pass or larger payloads that require fewer stops for seed and fertilizer refills, air seeders meet both ends. Yet, in order for these small grain machines to work well in corn and soybeans, they need the accuracy of planters.

"Air seeders will have to get a lot more precise than what's currently on the market in order to plant corn in high-yield environments," says Chuck Lee, corn products manager at Golden Harvest. "But there is a desire to have that kind of speed."

Seed is an added pressure. Never before have farmers had more seed hybrids to choose from. But selection comes at a price. Seed prices are double if not triple of what they were only a few years back. As a result, you need to make each seed count at planting. And the best mechanism to do that is a planter, not a drill or air seeder.

Yet, you may want a narrower row spacing than that traditionally provided by a planter if you are planting a herbicide-resistant crop that reduces the need to cultivate. That spacing is standard on air seeders or drills.

Finally there's the force of precision. Advancements in satellite positioning and variable rate technology allow you to deliver the exact amount of seed required to optimize yield on a particular area of the field. That technology is currently available in both planters and air seeders. The next breakthrough will be to vary seed varieties and hybrids according to your field location. Currently, that feature can only be found on air seeders.

"With technology and the cost of seed today, we want to be sure we place hybrids correctly," Lee says. "That will require the ability to change hybrids or varieties based on satellite location information."

All of these forces are putting pressure on engineers to bring not just planters but air seeders and drills to the next level. And they are attempting this by merging the best features. The ultimate blend will be a single machine that combines the best of all three implements and is able to plant any crop without compromise.

Here's how the design features are coming together.

The speed of air. Air seeders are built big. As a result, they can cover a lot of ground fast. The bulk tank can carry as much as 430 bu. of seed to reduce the number of refill stops, and you can seed a path as wide as 61 ft. But its use historically has been limited in the Corn Belt due to an inability to adequately place soybeans and corn.

That's changing. Manufacturers are replacing the traditional cultivator shanks with coulters, disc openers and press wheels to improve seed placement and depth control. These planter/drill adoptions have given rise to a new category of air seeders called air drills, a combination drill and air seeder.

For example, Flexi-Coil, Inc., came out in 1993 with the 5000 model air drill featuring improved depth control along with its standard packing system to provide better seed-to-soil contact. "The air drill gave farmers confidence that the air seeding system could provide accurate depth control," says Bruce Brekke with Flexi-Coil. "That's something farmers are looking for in the soybean market." Circle 217.

When Deere came out with its 1850 No-Till Air Drill in 1995, it was described as "combining the accuracy of Deere's 750 no-till drill opener with the speed and efficiency of an air drill." Just this month Deere announced an upgrade to the 1850. The 1860 features a new opener with 13 depth settings 1/4-in. increments compared to seven 7/16 increments on the previous opener for more precise depth gauging.

Great Plains has put double-disc openers from its drills onto its new air drills, the CTA 4000 and the NTA 3510. "We are marrying the best of both worlds," says Tom Evans, marketing manager of Great Plains. "You get all the benefits of lots of bulk seed to greatly enhance productivity, but you don't lose anything because of the accurate seed placement and depth control features of a drill."

Benefits of bulk A central bulk hopper is a feature of both air seeders and drills that is showing up on planters. In some cases it is being integrated with the implement, like the hopper on a drill. In others it is being towed as a commodity cart, as with an air seeder.

The hopper box featured on AGCO's 6800 planter is more like the hopper on a drill. So is the design Case has featured for years on its 955 series Early Riser planter. John Deere's version of the central hopper, called the 60 Seed-On-Demand, is more like an air seeder cart. The 60-bu. hopper is pulled behind the planter, and blowers continuously deliver seed to individual hopper boxes on the planter to cut the number of refill stops by 50 to 75%. Circle 218.

For a hopper twist on drills, Deere's new 1560 No-Till Drill features a new-shaped seed box. The seed box is still mounted on the mainframe of the drill but it has rounded edges that give it a look of a commodity cart while providing a 25% higher capacity than the box on the 750 model it replaces.

All these central hoppers offer one key benefit: one fill-point for faster filling and emptying. Compare that with conventional planters that may have as many as 24 individual hopper boxes.

Bulk hoppers have anywhere from one to three compartments to hold seed. Products are metered at the bottom of each compartment. That's opposed to corn planters, where the metering unit is on each row unit. Because there are fewer meters on air drills and seeders, you can switch tanks and stop the flow of one product at any given time or vary rates if the vehicle is equipped with variable rate drives. This opens up the door for switching seed varieties on the go according to varying field conditions.

"With our 1900 commodity cart for our air seeding line, you can meter regular beans in the first tank, for example, and Roundup Ready beans in the second," explains Tom Arthur, division marketing manager of Deere's Seeding Group. "You could put the meter on the first tank to plant regular beans, then pull out of the field and go to another 40 acres, switch the metering, and plant Roundup Ready without stepping down from the tractor."

The same feature is coming to corn planters. But it will require design modifications due to planters' individual row metering units.

All the planter manufacturers we talked to - AGCO, Case, Deere, Great Plains and Kinze - are working on variable hybrid technology for planters. Case may be the closest to achieving it. "There are technical issues involved," says Dale Simpson, planter marketing manager with Case's Ag Systems Group. "We have the capability of switching. It's now a matter of how quickly we can switch between different varieties. Just the physical clean-out of a hybrid can take several feet. Is that going to be close enough?"

Narrow rows of seeders and drills. Narrow row spacings are a feature of grain drills and air seeders. But these spacings are being designed into corn planters, some would say at the expense of drills. In the past few years all planter manufacturers have introduced planters with narrow row spacings of 30 in. or less in addition to the standard 36, 38 and 40 in.

In the mid 1980s, Kinze Manufacturing was one of the leaders to offer ultra narrow rows to plant 15-in. soybeans, using its patented Interplant system on push-row units. Case is now considering going to spacings of 71/2 in. on its planters, according to Simpson. Row spacing that narrow rivals the narrowest spacings on drills.

Accuracy of a planter. Here's where the borrowing of technology meets a stumbling block. Engineers are trying to give air seeders and drills the planting accuracy of planters so that they can be used for corn. But corn needs to be spaced evenly within rows, at a constant depth and with the right amount of seed to soil contact.

The planter is the only implement on the market that can meet those requirements.

"Industry now is focused on getting the air stream of air seeders to singulate seed similar to the meter in a planter," according to University of Nebraska's Jasa. "If they can improve that, they can start developing one large seeder that can seed wheat on narrow spacing, beans and milo on medium spacing, and corn on wide spacing, for instance."

Several companies claim to have reached a solution.

Just this month Morris Industries announced the introduction of its patented Row Crop Planter, which integrates an additional air tank mounted to the rear of the standard two-tank air cart. Attached to the cart through a 3-pt. hitch is a two-row toolbar that allows for multiple-row spacings and combinations of fertilizing methods.

The additional tank contains multiple metering discs, depending on working width, that use air pressure to hold individual seeds in seed pockets. As the disc rotates, individual seeds are picked up and deposited into a pressurized air line where the seed is carried to the planter unit in the air stream for even distribution in the row. The design is in the final stages of testing and is scheduled for sale in the spring of 1999.

Dr. Dwayne Beck, manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, South Dakota State University in Pierre, SD, has equipped an air seeder with planter units to plant corn and any other crop with the precision of a planter. "We're stealing all the good ideas from the corn planter and marrying them to the good ideas from the air seeder of the Wheat Belt to make a machine designed specifically for diverse no-till cropping systems."

He was unable to describe how he married the two, due to exclusivity agreements. However he says he is using all Case IH components, including a Concord air cart, purchased by Case earlier this year. All components have been modified for final design. Commercialization of the machine will be up to the equipment companies.

Great Plains says in the near future it also will have a prototype air drill that will plant corn. "The air drill will someday have a fertilizer bar for fall-applied fertilizer, a planter bar for corn and a drill implement for wheat, barley, small grains and soybeans," says Great Plains' Evans.

Flexi-Coil is marketing its air seeder to plant soybeans as well as band fertilizer with a standard corn planter. Additional products are being developed as add-ons for its existing equipment or as options on new equipment to meet the requirements of the row-crop market, according to Flexi-Coil's Bruce Brekke.

One machine for all crops? By overcoming the hurdle of seed singulation, these prototype machines are, by definition, the ultimate rig. Each machine is claimed to combine the best features of planters, air seeders and drills on one implement to plant all crops without compromising yield.

The ramifications are great. "Some equipment companies don't like the idea because it could affect sales of individual equipment lines," says University of Nebraska's Jasa. But he says the concept is appealing for farmers from the standpoint of machinery management. "As I tell farmers all the time at my planter clinics, when you consider the cost of each individual implement, it makes a lot of sense to have one seeder for use on multiple crops.

"Specialization is fine if you have enough acres to justify three different seeders-one for wheat, one for corn, and another for beans, for instance. But there are smaller farmers who need to save money and may want only one seeder. There are also the large farmers who may want the versatility of a single machine so that they don't have to constantly switch equipment."

SDSU's Beck says these new high-capacity, all-crops machines will become even more critical when farmers begin to look at diversifying their rotations. He and many other agronomists are advising farmers in the Corn Belt to start introducing wheat, oats and other crops back into their corn/soybean rotation because of problems with phytophthora, cyst nematode, gray leaf spot, and other plant diseases. "Once we do that, I'm not sure they will want to own two or three machines."

While this new concept is intriguing, other experts offer important aspects to consider for future buying. For example, Dr. Jonathon Chaplin, machinery systems engineer at the University of Minnesota, says that relying on one machine could result in costly downtime if it breaks down. Additionally, if the machine is bigger and has more attachments, it will be more expensive to maintain. "So, be sure to size the machine for your acreage," he says. "That also means making sure it's big enough. Planters are typically the bottleneck for any production system and need to be correctly specified."

Dennis Whitehead, marketing manager with Kinze, adds that transport constraints also need to be factored in before buying bigger systems. "Road travel is a big problem for farmers," he says. "Bulk-fill planter designs have a ways to go before they are as portable as today's current planters."