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New Technology on Older Iron: Age is Just a Number

Pushing populations on his 30-inch rows has been part of Bruce Rohwer’s planting regimen for more than a decade. 

“I’ve been running as high as 36,000 on corn for many years,” says the Paulina, Iowa, farmer and past president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “I feel population is tied to yield. Yet, in my experiments, it seems that I’m somewhat limited with wider row spacing when I start going past 36,000.”

In 2013, he bought another set of seed meters for his decade-old Kinze planter and cut his planting row width in half. Trimming the distance between plants created a problem, though. “When I plant with a 30-foot planter in a row every 15 inches, that’s an awful lot of seed that goes into the end rows if I’m on any kind of a contour,” explains Rohwer. “It was the motivating factor to get off dead center.”

Also, he didn’t want to lose on his seed investment twice – once in the spring because he’s spending more on seed than necessary and again at harvest because of overpopulation.

“If I plant too much seed because I’m pushing for higher populations, I can stress the plant to the point where I’m losing yield,” he says. “Not to mention the loss of seed that didn’t need to be there in the first place. It’s a double whammy.”

In order to maximize seed placement, Rohwer wanted the ability to shut off individual rows rather than sections. “My planter has a 50/50 split on it. I can shut off eight rows or 15 feet as I come into the end rows, but 15 feet in can be a long way sometimes,” he explains. 

Upgrading technology meant Rohwer was faced with a decision to trade in his older iron or to retrofit his 2003 Kinze 3600 planter and 1980 Case IH 7120 planting tractor.

“Technology is the future. As seed technologies continue to change, it’s going to be even more important. However, I couldn’t see investing in a new planter or tractor for the 1,100 acres I cover,” Rohwer says. 

“If the technology works reasonably well on older equipment, it might be more economical to retrofit it than to buy new if you can’t justify new equipment,” says professor and Extension agricultural economist Kevin Dhuyvetter, Kansas State University. “This will vary based on which technology you are looking at and what you are retrofitting. Even if the technology doesn’t work quite as well on older equipment, it still might be a good investment.”

Yet, he cautions that some technologies might not be conducive to retrofitting or even possible in some cases.

“Another thing to think about is how long you will have the equipment you’re retrofitting before you trade,” says Dhuyvetter. “You probably don’t want to retrofit an older planter with row shutoffs if you will be trading it in in a couple years. If you plan to keep running it for five more years, it would likely make sense.” 

You can evaluate various scenarios by using a decision-making tool at agmanager.info, which Dhuyvetter helped develop.

Breaking it down
Rohwer turned to HTS Ag in Harlan, Iowa, for technology advice.

“Bruce’s goal was to be able to use auto steer on his tractor and to monitor the row shutoffs and population on his planter,” says precision ag specialist Jeff Swearingen, who did the installation.
Here’s the breakdown of the nearly $35,000 technology investment Rohwer made.

  • Integra display. “I had run the Insight monitor for years,” says Rohwer. “When I upgraded the steering, it just made sense to switch to the newer monitor.”
  • GeoSteer. “I went with the GeoSteer receiver because it was an economical system that offered the RTK sub-inch accuracy I wanted,” says Rohwer.
  • OnTrac 2. “We equipped the tractor with OnTrac 2 assisted steering, which has terrain compensation components to accommodate rolling ground,” says Swearingen.
  • Seed Command with SureStop clutches. “On the planter, we installed a seed clutch control module and a Kinze planter monitor module,” notes Swearingen. “We tied it all together going through the Ag Leader harnesses and the Integra display, so Bruce can do everything through one display.”

“I was able to stay with a perfectly good tractor and planter while still getting the technology I wanted,” says Rohwer.

Challenges
While retrofitting older equipment with the latest technology definitely has its advantages, it isn’t without its trials.

“The biggest challenge is trying to run the cable, because the older-style tractors were never equipped with easy access points for running cables through into a tractor,” says Swearingen. “It’s the same challenges we have with some newer equipment.”

One of the issues for Rohwer is knowing who to call when he has a problem. “Is it tech support? Is it hardware? Is it installation? Who is the right person to call?” he asks. “I have to decide that on a case-by-case basis.”

Even with its challenges, Rohwer is not alone in his belief that age is just a number when it comes to equipping older iron with the latest technology.

“Actually, it happens more often than you might think,” Swearingen says. “In the last two months I’ve put auto steer on five older tractors. A lot of farmers are wanting to use GPS to guide the tractor across the field to be able to plant straighter or more even rows instead of weaving back and forth.”

As with precision technologies on new equipment, Dhuyvetter says the economics of retrofitting older equipment will vary considerably from farm to farm based on many factors (age of equipment, years before trading, farm size, field shapes). 

“You need to decide what works best for you and to not worry about following the herd,” Dhuyvetter says.

Evaluating technologies and determining if or where they fit in your operation will be the key to successful implementation. 

“For anything that can be retrofit, you have a decision to make. Is this something that is profitable to do or not? The bottom line is, you need to evaluate what works best for your individual situation,” concludes Dhuyvetter.

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