Sustainable Helicropping

The practice of helicropping is rapidly developing around New Zealand as a sustainable practice adding flexibility and profitability in the process of developing improved pasture.

 What is Helicropping?

Think of helicropping as “aerial no-tillage cropping”. An opportunity to establish crops or renovate pasture without compromising soil quality during the establishment stage. Cropping is cost-effectively carried out by helicopter, using specialised equipment. The technique is suited to small seeded forage varieties and pasture species.  Key to successful helicropping is controlling threats to the germination and establishment of seedlings with effective weed and pest control. Specialised spray nozzles (Accu-flo nozzles) limit off-target drift when spraying herbicides and appropriate sized hoppers, enable fertiliser to be applied to aid seedling establishment.

What are the benefits?

A primary benefit accrues from protecting the soil in the establishment stage. Soil structure and soil biology, particularly predator/pest balance are left intact. Soil water infiltration rates are unaffected. Oxygen and nutrients can readily move in the root zone where they have best effect. Helicropping can be carried out on any land type (including flat land) providing consideration is given to how and when the crop might be consumed. Protecting the soil at this stage is paramount.

Other benefits include reduced time to establish a crop/pasture (increasing the window of opportunity) and eliminating the problem of soil conditions restricting wheeled vehicle access.

Who is it suited to?

As a farmer who is capable of good planning, then Helicropping may be for you. The establishment costs are similar to no till and tillage methods for crop/pasture. You will need access to a nearby helicopter contractor with suitable equipment (travel distance quickly increases costs). Helicopter charges are high, but the time reduction is significant; a 40 ha crop can be established in 6-7 hours without opening the gate or putting wheel or steel on the paddock. Good planning must consider the class of animal to be fed and the appropriateness of the land cropped. Grazing the crop may put soils at risk if the type of crop and or the class of animal is inappropriate for the terrain.

How to do it?

Planning is important, involve the helicopter contractor early. Ensure he has suitable equipment. Soil tests will tell if lime is required, whether P and N are limiting. The basics of Helicropping involve spraying out the old pasture with a mix of glyphosate (for weeds) and insecticide (for springtails), broadcasting seed plus slug-bait, then broadcasting an appropriate fertiliser mix for the crop/pasture. Ideally the operation is done at half rates with a half overlap flying technique to ensure even spread. Normal crop management should be followed, including nitrogen side dressing 3-4 weeks after sowing, and seasonal pesticide sprays as required. 

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Figure1; Planning and preparation steps prior to sowing a hill country crop by helicopter

Figure1; Planning and preparation steps prior to sowing a hill country crop by helicopter


Figure 2; Sowing and post-emergence activities for a hill country crop sown by helicopter

Figure 2; Sowing and post-emergence activities for a hill country crop sown by helicopter



Why our farmers prefer Helicropping 
  1. “My 40 ha of rape was established in 6 hours… then we went home for lunch… didn’t even open the gate!” Geoff and Joanna Fitzgerald, Waikato
  2. “I used to worry about tractor drivers and their safety. Helicropping has changed all that…” Tihoi Farmer, Central North Island
  3. “I send an email to the pilot with GPS co-ordinates and dates. Have the merchant deliver the inputs to the pilot’s shed… and my 100 ha cropping program is complete” Tihoi Farmer, Central North Island
  4. “The recently cut over 14 ha forestry block grew an amazing kale crop for me, enabling 200 head to be bought mid winter, carried through to early summer, then sold after managing the spring flush for me” Tihoi Farmer, Central North Island



Keys to success
  • Do not skimp on the use of insecticide or herbicides. These are relatively cheap compared to the cost of the helicopter that’s applying them. Use a rate from the higher end of the product recommendations. You need to be sure of controlling pests so that seedlings can emerge and develop to maturity.
  • Slug bait is as important as the seed. Use the high rate to ensure your seedlings survive.
  • Similarly, do not underapply starter fertiliser. Use a high rate to ensure that phosphate is near to the seedlings, where it will help ensure good establishment. Recommended range for helicropping is 400-500kg/ha of DAP. 
  • Be aware of soil moisture levels. Dry conditions will result in poor establishment, so sow earlier in spring rather than later. After grazing the crop, consider a summer fallow before sowing perennial pasture in autumn.