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Perfectly placed seeds

Not even the strongest, most technologically advanced seed can contribute one iota to a successful corn crop unless it's placed in the ground where and when it needs to be.

With specific adjustments to their planters, two Corn Belt farmers and members of this year's Crop Tech Tour have taken new steps to more effectively deliver their seed, thereby, helping improve their chances of a bumper crop come harvest.

Both farmers are turning comprehensive knowledge of their fields into modifications to their implements that help solve problems unique to their respective landscapes.

Trying to get the most out of his fields, Gary Fulk runs big equipment on his 4,000- to 5,000-acre corn and soybean farm in south-central Illinois. Make that big, precision-driven equipment.

It once took two months to plant the crops with two planters, Fulk says. "Our new 48-row planter has made us more timely on planting corn. Plus, we make fewer passes over the field."

Fulk believes in planting corn early. With that big of a planter, who could wait to use the mammoth.

"I have planted in late March. If the ground conditions are perfect, you plant," he says. "In the early 1990s, I started planting early, and I haven't changed since. Anything planted after May 1, you start losing yield."

The Assumption, Illinois, farmer makes no bones about his goal to reach maximum yield. To help get there, he adjusted his 48-row planter to drop seed in 22-inch rows.

Increasing plant spacing has produced healthier stalks and better standibility, according to Travis Dollarhide, Fulk's crop consultant. The plant population, though initially to be increased, has remained between 34,000 and 35,000 seeds per acre.

"The adjustment in spacing has made better ears on the healthier stalks, resulting in better yields," Fulk says. With an odd-spaced planter, Fulk has a specially-made corn head for his combine.

Meanwhile, as an early adopter of triple-stacked corn, he selects hybrids for maximum economic return. Because the European corn borer and western corn rootworm are prevalent, Fulk sees the importance of selective seed choices.

Fulk is also introducing the use of fungicide to control late-season diseases. In a year of high prices and higher yields, it's easier to justify the extra costs of fungicide.

In addition, Fulk has a high percentage of corn-after-corn acres. Therefore, row cleaners have been added to his planter. The cleaners are designed to sweep the trash away from the row.

"The cleaners help to avoid root-balls from last year's stalks, and they make for a nicer seedbed," says Dollarhide. "The cleaners are mounted on the front of the planter and have spiked wheels to remove trash."

Almost all of Tom Muhr's cornfields near Exira, Iowa, are in rolling hills or bottom ground. Every row is a point row.

This used to make it difficult to control seed flow when planting, since with each pass, every row ended at a different point. Being able to watch all the rows and shut off seed flow almost required more hands and eyes than he has.

"All the ground I farm is contoured with terraces and waterways. So when I'm planting, it's point rows all day and night," Muhr says.

A 30-row planter with only one shutoff on either end used to make it difficult to avoid overlapping rows and, consequently, yield loss because of overplanting. But last year, working with crop consultant Leigh Downing, Muhr put to work a new planter clutch system that, when used in conjunction with a field mapping monitor, allows him to control seed flow in four-row or 80-inch increments.

Unlike most planter clutch systems, the ones on Muhr's planter are not mounted on the drill shaft, but on a smaller seed disconnect shaft on the seed hoppers themselves. This configuration eases installation and maintenance since it's not necessary to remove the entire shaft in the process.

"If you do have a problem, it will be easier to fix in the field," he says. "It's pretty much just remove your seed disconnect handle and then install the clutch and the new shaft into the row unit."

The clutches are connected to a pneumatic control unit on the middle of the planter. "It's all air operated. The little compressor controls the whole system," says Muhr, who adds he had doubts about the air-control system at first but says, "it hasn't given me a lick of trouble."

In addition, each box-mounted clutch is hardwired to a monitor in the tractor cab on which Muhr can map the field as he plants. Mapping software automatically engages the seed disconnect switch on rows that approach overlap areas in the field.

"I haven't had any trouble with the system once we got it going," Muhr says. "When you're planting, you can watch the monitor and see everything, even at night."

With such irregularly sized and shaped fields, keeping track of hybrid performance in the field was once a tall order for Muhr. Not so now that he's implemented the new clutch system in conjunction with a yield monitor. Since he can control seed flow more specifically and track specific hybrids in the field, he can glean a better understanding of hybrid performance during harvest.

"Instead of checking hybrids in a test plot in one spot in a field, with this system, I am getting a map of the whole field. When I switch hybrids, I may plant the whole row through all the different soil types," Muhr says. "So now with this system, I am going to get a lot better idea of how a hybrid’s doing through the whole field."

In terms of the system's cost, Muhr says that while it did require an initial start-up investment, the system should pay for itself in the first year.

"With corn right now, my seed cost is $65 to $67 per acre. So just in the seed cost savings alone, it will pretty much cover the costs this first year," he says. "That's not even factoring in the lower yields in the double-planted stuff."

This quick payoff turnaround isn't unusual. Recent research by Kansas State University ag economists Kevin Dhuyvetter and Terry Kastens shows that farmers can typically pay for tools like GPS systems much quicker than thought just a short time ago.

"We found that for many farms -- particularly those with big cropping machinery that's farming oddly shaped fields -- GPS technologies could yield extremely high returns," Kastens says. "Often, it was just a matter of how quickly the new GPS machinery would pay for itself."

This ability to recover the initial costs quickly comes through more precise planting and chemical applications and less overlap in the field, according to Dhuyvetter and Kastens.

Making up for the initial investment is even easier in fields like those on Muhr's farm, especially when it comes to those precious feet and inches of overlap between parallel rows within a field.

"By definition, overlap is more common there than anywhere else, and overlap means covering the same area more than once," Dhuyvetter says. "You end up farming more acres than you actually have in the field. That increases both machinery and input costs. It also can reduce the yields there."

Not even the strongest, most technologically advanced seed can contribute one iota to a successful corn crop unless it's placed in the ground where and when it needs to be.

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