“A winning effort begins with preparation.” — Joe Gibbs, three-time Super Bowl-winning football coach and championship NASCAR team owner
Let’s start with two horror stories that illustrate how being ill-prepared can get planting off to a dismal start:
A Nebraska farmer a few years ago meticulously prepared his planter and related hardware to get a quick start on planting. He roared into the field feeling good about himself until — 50 acres into the process — he realized he had forgotten a key ingredient: seed. (This story came from an Extension source, and we assume it is not a rural legend.)
If true, this illustrates a clear point: “Distraction can get to us when we are under pressure to get seed into the ground,” says Mark Hanna, Iowa State University Extension agricultural engineer.
Over the winter, a farmer replaced some of his equipment but thought he could use a memory card that had his previous year’s settings. He was wrong. “Everything looked identical from the previous year, and he assumed he was good to go,” says Amos Greene, an equipment specialist who spends hundreds of hours each year setting up and maintaining planters for Vetter Equipment, in Nevada, Iowa. “But when corn came up, he found he had been planting into his headlands for about 6 feet every pass, and when he came out, the row units didn’t activate until he was into the field about 40 feet. Only then did corn start to plant — and as the crop grew — weeds filled in the gaps.”
From the seemingly basic to the more complex, proper planter preparation is vital to getting a good stand. In talking to farmers, mechanics and other experts, we gathered some of the key points to check as you get the planter ready to go.
1. Make a list. Sounds simple and it is. A list keeps you on track and makes forgetting something less likely. “Our problems at the beginning of the year are never complicated. They are just things someone overlooked,” Greene says.
Billy Thiel, who farms corn and soybeans with his brother, Donnie, and cousin, Bryan Thiel, says that every year, he gets a checklist from his dealer to help him prep his planter. “Of course, we have a few things we add on our own,” he says.
2. Row units. They float up and down on parallel links that attach them to the toolbar. The linkages “tend to wear over time, especially in those pinpoints where you can get some sloppiness,” Hanna says. “Too much of that, and the row unit will start to angle or drift.”
The linkages can also can get bent or sprung. “That is going to make it more difficult for the row unit to track up and down as it should,” creating a poor “ride” and inaccurate placement, Hanna says.
Bushings also must be in good shape for accuracy. Try moving the individual row units up and down, and side to side, to see if there is any excess play. Replace bushings, if necessary.
3. Tire pressure. This is a simple adjustment, one often overlooked. Check each tire’s pressure to make sure it is within the manufacturer’s recommended parameters. Inconsistent tire pressures can create inconsistent seed-depth placement. “The air pressure in tires has to be right. That makes a difference,” Thiel says.
4. Double-disc openers. Check for overall wear. “Once they [disc openers] are worn to less than 13.5 inches in diameter, replace them,” Greene says.
Wear also can change the configuration of the discs. Use a card trick to check for gaps. Insert a business card between the two discs until it sticks. Insert a second card from the other side. The gap between them should be smaller than 2 to 3 inches, depending on manufacturer recommendations. If the gap is shorter than that, shim the discs to correct. Otherwise, furrows could be inconsistent, which can affect accuracy. “Beveled edges on the coulters will wear off over time and reduce the distance between them until a card cannot be held between the discs,” Hanna says.
Gaps can also catch residue and create new problems.
5. Meters. These are the clockworks of your planter and must be accurate. If you have your own tester, you likely are already using it. If you don’t, take your meters to a dealer. The check could be well worth the investment.
6. Meter drives. Hanna tells a story about a western Nebraska farmer who “was pretty picky” when it came to skips. One spring, after his corn germinated, he found some maddening skips. He and his dealer went over the planter carefully but could not find a problem. Finally, they raised it off the ground to manually turn the drive shaft. They had it: “A couple of links [in the chain] bound ever so slightly,” just enough to cause occasional skips, Hanna says. This case probably wasn’t enough to matter much to the yield, but some meter-drive issues can be more than maddening. They can be costly.
7. Closing discs. When new, most closing discs have 8-inch diameters. Check for wear, and if they are less than 7.5 inches wide, replace them. Also, make sure they are properly aligned over the seed trench and under the closing wheels. To check, put the planter on gravel or concrete, and drive forward a little. The mark made by the discs should be along the center line of the closing wheels.
8. Row shutoffs. These come in electric, hydraulic and pneumatic. You can check whichever kind you have for functionality. Follow owner manual instructions. For instance, if you have a pneumatic system, you should do things like drain the air tank, lubricate clutch plungers, remove covers and blow out dust, Greene says. A dealer has the equipment to calibrate shutoffs.
9. Hydraulics. Perform oil and filter replacements, as recommended. Test hydraulic systems in operation before you go to the field. Start and run all systems after connecting to the tractor.
To prevent problems, you should mark hydraulic hoses so you or someone else doesn’t hook them up backward. Paint an “R” on the retract side and an “E” on the extend side. Color-code hoses to ensure they go to the right systems.
10. Groundspeed sensors. Greene uses this system to calibrate for distance: Set flags in a field at a specific distance (say, 400 feet) and drive to verify the sensor is accurate. “If you don’t come within 2 feet, I’d reset the calibration,” he says.
11. Mice. “Rodent damage is a big problem,” especially for electrical systems and hoses, Greene says. “I have bulk-fill hoses and vacuum hoses chewed through every year.”
12. Lube. Grease zerks are there for a reason. Know where your grease points are, make a list and check them off as you attend to each one.
13. Air lines. If you have an air seeder with a bulk hopper, check to see if the seal is still airtight. Delivery lines must be in good shape — no cracks or kinks — and the fan motor should be working properly. If you have a vacuum planter, you should also check all seals.
Thiel also makes sure to blow out the main tube on his vacuum planter “in case a bird built a nest in there over the winter.” At the same time, he eliminates dust and graphite that may have accumulated in the tube.
14. Downpressure. If you have an in-cab downpressure adjustment system, make sure it is functioning properly. Greene suggests:
- With planter lowered just to the ground, spin a gauge wheel. It should take some effort but not be difficult.
- At planting speed, monitor row units until they begin to bounce, then add air pressure gradually until they are calm.
15. Seed tubes. They can wear out. Check them and, while you are at it, make sure seed sensors are clean and calibrated. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, if you have a problem with a seed tube sensor, it will show up on your monitor as a trouble code,” Greene says.
16. Software updates. Electronics are great, but the software that runs them can change from year to year. Make sure you have the latest software, which could fix earlier glitches or improve performance. Before you venture out for real, calibrate your auto-guidance system, check implement draft accuracy and make sure your headlands-management sequences check out. When you are uploading field maps, be sure the field names match.
17. Human touch. While electronic controls are useful, Hanna says, “You want to keep your eyes open about what is happening. There still is no substitute for getting out of the tractor and into the field to check for seed placement, especially early in the season. An extra three minutes to stop and double-check can really pay dividends.”