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8 ways to set your planter for success

Picket-fence corn stands not only look great but also set the stage for bumper yields come fall.

“If you plant corn at 34,000 plants per acre and aim for 200-bushel-per-acre yields, every ear of corn is worth .0058 of a bushel,” says Craig Kesteloot, co-owner and general manager of Sterling Equipment & Repair in Cottonwood, Minnesota. “Say you walk through a field and see 300 to 400 plants per acre that are planted so close together that they won’t make an ear. It’s surprising how quickly that adds up.”

The good news is that farmers can nix skips, doubles, and other planting sins by making several simple planter adjustments. In many cases, the only cost is time.  

“When you listen to yield contest winners, they have some simple goals,” says Kesteloot. “They all shoot for consistent depth and seed trench closure. They also want corn emerging in a 12- to 24-hour time frame. This is not out of the realm for other farmers to do if they set their planters correctly. They can make changes without spending a lot of money.”

1. Define the problem 

All the planter adjustments or planter replacement components in the world won’t fix matters if they aren’t the problem. The corners of many farm shops are littered with closing wheels, trash whippers, or other planter additions that were bought to fix problems but didn’t, says Kesteloot.

“Your soil is different than that of your neighbors,” he says. “What works for them may not work for you.”

2. Level the toolbar 

Leveling the toolbar from front to back is crucial for the row units to function properly. That’s not always so easy, says Kesteloot. 

“Sometimes, you can’t get it perfectly level, but you always want the front end of the planter higher than the back,” he says. 

3. Set down pressure 

Planter down pressure settings may vary from 40 to 500 pounds per square inch per planter, says Kesteloot. 

“The range is wide because of all the different soil types and soil conditions that farmers have,” he says. 

Soil differences are the reason you should check down pressure as you move between fields, he adds. 

“Hydraulic downforce is awesome,” says Kesteloot. It helps ensure optimal down pressure at all times across the field. 

It can be an expensive investment, though, costing around $2,000 per row unit, he says. If dollars are tight, some simple adjustments can help determine the desired down pressure. 

“Walk behind the planter and kick the depth press wheel with your foot,” he says. The wheel should have enough pressure on it so it will not turn freely. 

Down pressure can be overdone in wet soils, though. “If you see a track following the closing wheels, you need to make an adjustment,” he says. 

4. Adjust depth

Every year without fail, you should make a zero adjustment to the depth gauge press wheels, Kesteloot says.

Optimal seeding depth can vary between years, so it’s wise to make the adjustment prior to the planting season. “This will help ensure all row units are working properly,” he says.

To do so, consult your planter manual. “All manuals give a definite way to adjust the depth and ensure every row is set to the proper depth,” he says.

5. clear residue, not soil

Row cleaners and trash whippers have those names for a reason.“Row cleaners and trash whippers use a sweeping motion to clear trash in front of the row unit,” says Kesteloot. “Trash wheels should turn residue – not dirt.”

Aggressively setting row cleaners to churn soil can particularly cause problems on sloping farmland. “If you create a valley with a row cleaner, water following a rain can run down that valley and undo the planting job you did,” he says.

Excessive residue can block the seedbed and cause hairpinning. “If you see this happening, you can tweak the row cleaners a bit to prevent this,” he says. “Outside of that, you don’t want to get too aggressive with them. They only should turn one half to two thirds of the time in conventional or strip-till systems. In no-till, they will turn more frequently because there is more residue to clear.”

6. seed firmers and closing wheels

Seed firmers can help ensure proper seed-to-soil contact. One word of caution, though. “They work great in dry soils, but wet soil can stick to them,” he says. “This can move seed out of the seed trench.” 

True to their name, closing wheels close the seed trench behind the planting units. “They need to line up exactly behind the row unit to function properly,” he says. “Improper adjustment can actually pull the seed out of the ground or disturb where you planted.” 

7. don’t speed

Planter speed can affect seeding depth dramatically, says Kesteloot. That’s why it’s a good idea to still get out and check seeding depth and to make sure the seed trench is closing properly. 

“Drive the speed you’d normally plant and check the planter settings,” he says. 

Rocky soils prove an extra challenge. “Rocky soils are just that,” says Kesteloot. “There’s not much you can do about them. Row cleaners can move stones in front of the row unit, but for rocks underneath, you need to slow down.”

Slowing planter speed also applies to conventionally tilled fields. 

“When it comes time to plant, there is a lot of debris in that top 2-inch zone that your planter’s row units have to deal with. Your planter is a precise form of equipment. Hitting rocks and excessive trash is detrimental to planter accuracy,” he says.

8. check soils

Even the shiniest new corn planter or one on which adjustments have been made won’t make the cut if used in sopping wet soils. 

“If field conditions are too wet to plant, go find a hobby,” jests Kesteloot. “Go fishing, go golfing, go to the coffee shop and visit with the guys. Your planter is not designed to overcome Mother’s Nature obstacles. If the ground is not fit for planting, give Mother Nature time to work, or else you’ll have to accept a lower yield.”

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