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