The Alabama Cooperative Extension System recently hosted a Planter Clinic at the E.V. Smith Research Center in the east-central part of the state. Presenters discussed the calibration and setup of planter units, new metering technology, and the impact of planter performance on crop yields. The following is the second in a series of three.
While all crops can benefit from fine-tuning your planter, corn tends to be more yield responsive, says Andy Pace, Southeast regional manager for Precision Planting.
“There’s more of a direct correlation to a lot of the changes and management practices that can be made by farmers. But the basic principles apply to all row crops, whether it is corn, peanuts or cotton,” says Pace.
There are several things that can be done to tune your planter for success, says Pace, the first being perfecting seed spacing.
“To plant with precision, we need to get the spacing correct. There’s also the singulation of your seed meter, and these factors go hand-in-hand.
“Equally important is improving depth uniformity. We know that if we can get uniform depth, we can get uniform emergence. If we get uniform emergence, we give ourselves the best opportunity to have those plants at the same growth stage throughout the year, making everything we do a lot easier,” he says.
It’s also important to create an optimal seed environment, adds Pace. “Down-force management and other factors will help us to manage that seed environment and give the seed its best chance, and the technology is available to help us improve our planter performance.”
Farmers should look at their planters as small-scale factories, he says, with assembly lines within each row unit.
“But what are we doing with our assembly line? We cover it up with a closing system.
The only way I know what’s going on is to spend my entire day digging seed, or I can invest in technology that can help me know if I’m running efficiently,” says Pace.
When considering corn plant population numbers, growers should look at efficiency in planting. Also, they should make sure they’ve got uniform ear size, he says.
In a groundbreaking study conducted about 20 years ago by Purdue University, researchers went into farmers’ fields and tried to gauge how well farmers did on hitting their target population, says Pace.
Only about 60 percent of the fields they examined were within about 4 or 5 inches of that targeted spacing. And, only about 16 percent of the fields were less than 3 inches within the targeted spacing.
“They went back and did yield checks on those fields and discovered a direct correlation between how well you space the plants and your yield potential. For every inch that we’re off our targeted average spacing, it costs us about 2.5 bushels in potential yield of corn.
“This study changed the mindset of those in agriculture and how we look at planters, and how we concentrate on spacing. Because if you think about it, if I could gain you an inch, I could gain you about 2.5 bushels of yield potential.”
A Monsanto-sponsored study looked at a static plant population of 36,000 in 30-inch rows, and a uniform stand versus an erratic stand, according to Pace.
“There was about a 10-ear advantage in having uniform spacing versus an erratic stand. For each ear, we’re adding about 7 bushels of yield potential. So how do we capture that extra ear?”
Calibrating your seed meters before going to the field is the easiest money in farming that you’ll ever make, he says. “How often does everything go perfectly and beautifully on the first day of planting? If you put these meters on a test stand before you ever go into a field and start planting, you can make that first day a lot easier on yourself.
“I recommend that, no matter what you’re running, put it on a test stand and bring in the seed that you’re going to plant.
“On vacuum meters, you can figure out what vacuum you need to run. You also can figure out what plate you need to be using. We can take out a lot of guesswork by simply putting these things on a test stand and running them.”
A Pioneer-sponsored study looked at farmers who calibrated their meters before the season versus people who did not, says Pace. On average, growers saw about a 5-bushel bump from simply calibrating meters.
Meters are the heart of the operation, he says. “You need to find out what’s going on within each row of your planter and how efficient that factory is running. With the technology available today, you can do that.”
Down-force management is critically important in improving planter performance, says Pace, with factors like bounce and vibration being mortal enemies of any seed meter.
So if I know what’s going on with down-force, and I’ve got enough down-force to keep it in the ground, and I know I’m not getting too much bounce, then I know I’m giving that meter a good ride and the opportunity to perform.”
Pace encourages farmer to invest in a good planter monitor that will provide data on factors like ride, spacing and down-force. “If I know how much the planter is bouncing, then I know how much it affects the seed dropping off the plate.”
(If you missed he first article in this series, it can be found at Planter Clinic Part 1: Finely tuned equipment can't overcome other deficiencies).
Currently available technology such as planter monitors makes it possible to utilize the data coming through seed tubes in making decisions, he says.
When setting down-force systems on planters, growers tend to err on the heavy end of the spectrum, says Pace.
“Most everyone sets them for the heavier ground, because you want to be sure that when you hit a heavy spot, you’ve got enough force to get the planter into the ground.
“We want uniform depth and 100-percent ground contact, so we want to make sure we get enough depth. Typically, we carry a lot of extra weight. If we manage down-force effectively, we can improve uniform depth and optimum seed environment.”
Several factors can affect down-force, says Pace, including seed, insecticide, fertilizer, targeted depth and speed.
“The faster I go, the more weight it’ll take me to get into the ground. Standard row units weigh about 200 pounds on their own. Seed hoppers, fertilizer and insecticide could add from zero to 150 pounds of weight to that row unit, so it’s constantly changing. If you’re running row cleaners, whether they’re fixed or floating, that’s another 50 pounds of weight that can be added to that row unit.”
Whether growers are running air bags or down-pressure springs, they’ve typically got the ability to go from zero to about 400 pounds, says Pace.
Four different settings
Heavy-duty down-pressure springs have about four different settings — 100, 200, 300 or 400 pounds. With each of these products, growers can add about 400 pounds of down-force pressure, and how they manage that is critical, he says.
Forces that exert pressure up include the ground; opening disks, accounting for 50 to 150 pounds of pressure back up; closing wheels, adding zero to 50 pounds; and row cleaners, adding zero to 20 pounds.
“Down-force is a lot to manage, and we typically manage it on the heavy side,” says Pace.
“So if you have down-pressure springs, you’ll usually set it at one notch heavier than it needs to be just to make sure you get 100 percent of depth when you get to heavier ground. Seed alone, with a 3-bushel hopper, can cause a 100 to 150-pound swing.”
Excessive down-force can cause sidewall compaction in heavier soils, he says. In sandier soils, there’s the risk of root-zone compaction.
“If we’re talking about cotton, it’s more of a taproot plant, and if I’m trying to plant shallow, I may want to put on extra weight to make sure it never rises out of the ground.
If I’m planting corn, at 1.5 to 2 inches deep, I want to put on enough weight to make sure I get my 100-percent ground contact, but I don’t want to carry any extra weight because it can lead to root-zone compaction, and lateral roots never develop.
“When you’ve got root-zone compaction and the seed starts to germinate and set its taproot, it’ll never develop the root system that’ll pay you money.”
If you can get enough down-force to get the seed into the ground but not carry excess weight, it’ll help to create an optimal seed environment, says Pace.
Some growers are managing air bags on their planters, he says, and if you have down-pressure springs, there are retro-fit kits that’ll allow you to use air bags.
“I recommend that producers buy a system that records your down-pressure information. It’s important to start collecting data and to know if you have problems with seed size or soil type. The tools are available to manage down-force automatically.”
Air bags, he says, are the first frontier of down-force management.
“There are systems that allow you to manage down-force pneumatically from the tractor cab. The next frontier is hydraulics.
“With air, I need to manage it across the entire planter because the technology today limits my ability to manage each air bag individually. Also, it takes the system 20 or 30 feet to make an adjustment.
“But we can replace the entire down-force system with a hydraulic cylinder that can adjust the individual row in a sub-second response time. It can go from 600 pounds of down-force to 400 pounds of lift in a very short period of time.
“There’s a cost to it, so you have to weigh the benefits between managing down-force across the whole planter, or individually managing each row with hydraulics. That’s why it’s important to go ahead and start recording your down-force data.”
Research has shown about a 10 to 15-bushel difference in managing down-force automatically versus trying to guess it yourself, says Pace.
Uniform depth in planting, he says, allows for uniform emergence. “It’s a matter of managing that plant throughout the year. Uniform emergence helps us with uniform ear placement and uniform-size ears, and that’ll give you more yield potential.”
An Illinois study showed that a corn plant located next to a runt, or one that’s two or three collars behind, produces more grain, says Pace.
“But if you look at the average of those plots versus the average of a uniform stand, there was about a 25-bushel advantage in having uniform emergence versus uneven emergence.”
While there have been a lot of advances in planter technology, he says, it still boils down to looking at seed tube data. However, it’s easier now to do something with that data.
“With variable rate planting, the only thing you’re doing is adding a drive, be it hydraulic or electric. We get a lot smoother performance with these new motors, fewer issues with your meter and vibration, and not as many problems with population.
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“Standard transmission settings are guidelines, and sometimes they aren’t accurate.”
Variable-rate technology means identifying two different zones — a higher management zone and a lower management zone, says Pace.
“We’re talking about varying that rate automatically from the tractor, so I can plant a different population in each zone. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We get better spacing, better sunlight utilization, and better yield.
“The future is variable-rate seeding, and one of your suppliers will approach you about the ability of prescription planting with a variable rate.
“If you’re looking to invest in a new planter or trade in your old one, make the investment in hydraulic or electric drives so you can apply prescription planting rates that match up with soil type and other data. It has become easier for growers to plant variable-rate prescriptions.”
Growers, however, shouldn’t expect to automatically save money on seed with variable-rate planting, cautions, Pace.
“You’ll find yourself starting to push your land. So unless you have a water issue, where you want to drop rates outside a center pivot, you probably won’t save money on seed.”
Pace urges farmers to invest money in the most important factor on their farm – the planter. “This technology won’t be cheap, but it pays off, and you’ll do better than the average.”
Tomorrow: Planter Management for Peak Performance
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