Pinpoint Planting With These 4 Steps
The stakes have never been higher. Bottom lines have bottomed out, commodity prices appear to have flatlined, and input costs continue to cause cardiac arrest.
What you can control, however, is the performance of your planter. Though it is but one piece of equipment, it happens to hold massive influence on the very thing you need more of these days – yield.
The impact that a worn and misadjusted planter has on yield has been well documented both by university and private industry research. The latest research in that regard was conducted by White Planting last year. In 12 farmer research fields scattered across the Midwest, White engineers and agronomists evaluated the impact that variation in seed spacing, depth, and down pressure has on yield.
Variations from ideal spacing and depth slash yields from 7 to 25 bushels per cre. “We also confirmed what other research had indicated,” notes Darren Goebel of AGCO. “Any plant that emerges 36 hours after the rest of the crop is a poorly producing plant that steals water and fertilizer away from other plants.”
Successful Farming magazine’s Planter Doctor, Kevin Kimberley, knows this situation all too well. “Later-emerging corn plants are weeds during the growing season,” he notes.
Regardless of the huge impact that planter performance can have on yield, Kimberley still sees seed meters, for example, come into his shop in amazing disrepair. “Planters are still being treated like field cultivators. They’re drug directly out to the field from the storage shed in the condition that they finished up planting the year before,” he says. “If there is just one piece of equipment you should fawn over and baby, it’s your planter.”
1. THE SEED METER
Regardless of the type of seed meter you are using (finger pickup or pneumatic), you will want to completely disassemble each meter to clean all parts using compressed air.
Kimberley says you will likely have to use a spray surface solvent in the process. “Simple soap and water often aren’t adequate to remove graphite and seed coatings that adhere to the meter’s surface.”
After cleaning, examine all the working parts of the meter looking for wear and tear. Use your planter’s owner’s manual as a guide.
When it comes to finger pickup meters, Kimberley automatically replaces certain parts like brushes, belts, and their idlers each year. “Look for a warped baffle or elevator housing for wear and determine if it needs to be replaced. Buff away any and all rust that may have developed on metal surfaces.”
During your examination, pay attention to the meter’s faceplate to look for wear.
Likewise, check the seed conveyor belts for worn paddles or cracks. “You want the belts to be pliable. Check their drive holes to see if they have elongated from working with the pulley,” he says.
With pneumatic meters, the most challenging issue is removing seed treatment from plastic parts since “it adheres to plastic like glue,” Kimberley has found.
Pneumatic meter components that require particular attention for wear:
- Seals. They are crucial to maintain accurate vacuum.
- Meter disks. They wear far more than you realize.
- Brushes. They should be replaced every year.
- Lids and housing. They can warp from heat.
Kimberley recommends marking the pneumatic meter and each of its major components (disks, lids, etc.) with a number to correspond with the row unit it was removed from.
With your repair work finished on the meters, take your meters to be calibrated by a technician. “I like to test every meter 10 times using 500 seeds in every test to be sure that they operate accurately,” Kimberley says. “Don’t trust that a new planter runs accurately.”
2. THE ROW UNITS
Next, focus on the row units, inspecting them primarily for wear and tear.
“Start at the front of the unit beginning with any attachment and ending with the packing wheels,” Kimberley advises.
By virtue of having been added to the planter, attachments are often overlooked. At the very least, inspect their frames and mountings to determine if they were damaged during the previous year. If their blades have seen a lot of use, they will likely need to be sharpened (if designed as such).
Inspect double-disk openers by removing the disks and measuring their diameters. If that measurement is close to or greater than ½ inch less than the original size, replace the disks.
“Worn openers create furrows with a W-shape rather than the preferred V-shape bottom,” Kimberley says.
Be sure to examine all bearings, listening for a grinding noise when they’re turned. This indicates potential failure. After replacing disks, check that they contact each other: 1¾ inches for thick-gauge disks and 2¼ inches for thin-gauge where the disks engage the soil. “Check contact by slipping business cards between the disks from the top and the bottom, measuring between the cards,” Kimberley says.
Next, remove all seed tubes. “Frequently, worn tubes will have a small dog-ear flap of plastic you need to remove. Really, any significant wear calls for new seed tubes,” Kimberley notes. Finish up with the seed tubes by cleaning the eye of the monitor sensor (inside the tube) and inspecting cast metal guards for wear.
Finally, examine the depth gauge wheels. Grab the wheels and turn them by hand, checking for “operating slop, which indicates worn eccentric bearings,” Kimberley explains. “Loose gauge wheels won’t press against disk openers, which is crucial to forming a true V-furrow. If bearings are sound but the wheel is loose, adjust its eccentric bearing so the wheel makes solid contact with the full diameter of the opener disk.”
Look for gaps between wheels and disks that allow soil from the furrow sidewall to cave in, affecting depth placement. Check for sharp lips on the wheels’ edges, which are crucial to forming the seed furrow.
Before moving to the back of the row unit, give the parallel linkage a once-over to see if the bushings are worn or the arms are bent and twisted.
“Such conditions jeopardize the ability of a row unit to run level and smooth,” Kimberley explains. “Test linkage by standing behind the row unit to move it up and down, side to side, looking for loose movement.”
While in this vicinity, examine all drive chains for wear or drive cables for smooth operation. When it comes to cable drives, you will need to take the cable off the row unit and turn it by hand to determine if it’s turning smoothly.
“Any vibration in the chains or cables affects the accuracy of the meters – especially on tougher sizes of seed,” he says.
Next check the tension on down-pressure springs (if your planter uses them) or for leaks on air bags. Air bags rarely wear or spring leaks with the exception of the air-line connection.
“Check for air leaks by spraying soapy water on each connection to look for bubbles,” Kimberley says.
Examine the closing disks (if the planter is so equipped) and press wheels. Turn both, listening for a grinding noise indicating worn bearings. Examine the entire press wheel assembly to determine if it’s bent or cracked.
Grab the closing assembly and move it up and down and side to side to check for “operating slop from worn bearings, bushings, or cams,” Kimberley says. “Mountings and bushings do get worn, and that directly impacts the ability to provide solid soil-to-seed contact.”
Check the distance between packer wheels and shim them so they have the correct gap. You may have to shim out the wheels to get them to the right gap.
Finish your inspection by checking row unit alignment. “Coulters, trash wheels, disk openers, and closing disks and packer wheels should all operate in a straight line,” Kimberley says. “To check, lower the planter on concrete and pull ahead 5 to 10 feet. Check the marks on the concrete left by the disk openers and see if the scratches run down the center of the closing wheels.”
3. THE REST OF THE PLANTER
With your inspection of the row unit complete, now take some extra time to look over the rest of the planter. Make sure to note the condition and operating performance of the general drive system, hydraulic hoses, electrical wiring and connections, and tires.
Tires are the most-often ignored planter components – until they go flat. Even if they don’t go flat, under-inflated tires affect how well row units are able to maintain precise depth placement, and they can jeopardize level planter operation.
Proper inflation keeps the toolbar level and keeps drive tires turning at the same speed,” Kimberley says.
Like tires, hydraulic hoses and electrical lines and connectors are often ignored during a preseason inspection. “Hydraulic hoses do wear, especially where they bend from folding the planter, for example,” says Kimberley.
Also look for abrasion and cracking on hoses. This can, among other things, indicate a buildup of heat in a particular location due to restriction of a hose. Finish the hydraulic inspection by examining all cylinders to detect leaks.
4. TAKE A TEST RUN
After all the shop work is done, there is one last chore to tend to before hitting the field in earnest. Take the planter for a test run. Run the planter for a short distance and stop with the row units still in the soil.
Using a common shop level, you need to adjust the planter altitude “making sure that the toolbar is at the proper height and leveled front to rear, perhaps even slightly tail down,” explains Paul Jasa, Extension Research Engineer at the University of Nebraska. “This allows for the full range of movement of the parallel links on the row units and aids in seed-to-soil contact.”
Try blind planting without seed in the entire planter (this represents the lightest the planter will be during use). Again, stop the planter and check if the depth gauge wheels are in firm contact with the soil. “Check each of the row units,” Kimberley urges, “as there can be down pressure difference between rows that this evaluation will reveal. If a set of depth gauge wheels is spinning, then you will need to adjust that row’s down pressure.”
Check to see that the planter’s drive wheels (if your planter utilizes drive wheels) are in firm contact with the soil. “What might be happening is that the down pressure system is lifting the planter up,” Jasa explains. Using a small amount of seed, plant a short distance, checking for seeding depth, seed-to-soil contact, and seed spacing.
This is also a good time to check the bottom of the trench to see that the seed is in solid contact with the soil. “It is important to use the least possible amount of down pressure to create correct seed-to-soil contact,” says Dave Lorenz of Totally Tubular Manufacturing (totally-tubular.net).
Conversely, examine the seed trench to determine that you are not overcompacting the trench sidewalls (a particular problem in wet field conditions). “Field studies have found sidewall compaction rates as high as 800 to 850 psi,” Lorenz says. “Corn roots will not penetrate compaction rates of more than 300 to 350 psi.”