The sun is shining, the soil is ripe and the clock is ticking. Don’t let the excitement of getting in the field for the first time each spring provoke planting mistakes that jeopardize yields from the get-go.
I’ve dealt with nearly 40 planting seasons as a farmer or equipment dealership mechanic, and if I haven’t made the following mistakes myself, I’ve seen them made by others. Here’s my list of the top 10 first-day planting mistakes.
- Modern planters are hydraulic hogs and often have six or more hydraulic hoses that must be connected to the proper selective control valve (SCV) on the tractor. If you didn’t mark or write down how the hoses were connected when you unhooked the planter last year, check your owner’s manual for diagrams on how to properly connect hydraulic hoses.
- Electronic systems require at least 12.5 volts and a good ground. Use a voltmeter to make sure the last electrical connector before a console has at least 12.5 volts on the power pin. Connect ground wires for electronic consoles all the way back to the negative post on the battery. Scraping the paint off a monitor bracket for a grounding point is risky for modern systems, which often operate internally on as little as 4 volts.
- There’s a good chance a seed tube will plug, a seed tube sensor will fail or seed delivery tubes on air planters will need cleaning. Resist temptation. Put minimal seed in the boxes or hopper until you’re sure the planter is working perfectly.
- Planters that were planting "just fine" at the end of the previous season can mysteriously develop broken finger tension springs, broken disk scrapers or excess clearance between disk openers and gauge wheel tires during the off-season. Farmers are also liable to find mouse nests in vacuum units. There are apparently an army of machine shed gremlins who gleefully mess up planters when they are put away for the year.
- Remembering how to operate modern computerized control systems from year to year is no small feat. Upgrading software, programming farms and fields and remembering how auto-steering works is best done well ahead of planting, rather than on the end rows with a planter full of seed sitting behind you.
- Excess down pressure on row unit gauge wheels packs the soil on either side of the seed furrow. Excess down pressure on closing wheels packs the soil over seeds. With the planter lowered and in planting position, you should be able to turn a gauge wheel or closing wheel a quarter-turn without major effort.
- Be mindful of seed quality and seed size and calibrate meters accordingly. It’s important to have seed meters tested and calibrated on test stands with samples of all the seed sizes and grades you’ll plant to reduce the amount of in-field experimenting needed to determine optimum vacuum and finger unit settings.
- Seed meters establish seeding rate (seeds per acre). Actual seed spacing (seeds per foot) can be influenced by what happens to seeds after they leave the seed meter. Seeds that bounce off the sides of seed tubes due to rough fields or high ground speeds fall more slowly than seeds that don’t bounce. If a "fast" seed catches up with a "slow" seed, they end up as a "double" in the furrow even though they left the meter perfectly spaced. Don’t blame seed meters for uneven spacing until you’ve eliminated the seed delivery aspect as a possible culprit.
- Worn disk openers allow dirt clods and crumbles to fall into seed furrows and disrupt seed depth. Uneven seed depth causes uneven emergence. Check seed meters by turning individual units by hand several full revolutions and looking for seeds ejected as doubles or triples. Some vacuum meters have plastic windows that allow operators to see whether seed disks are picking up and delivering doubles or dropping seeds and creating skips in the furrow.
- I spend a couple of evenings prior to planting skimming through owner’s manuals for planters. First, it forces me to find the manuals. Second, it helps me remember the top 10 problems I usually deal with on the first days of planting season.
Final Planting Flubs
Planters that left the shed polished, oiled and tuned to perfection are often battle-weary by the time the final field passes beneath their wheels. The rush to get crops in the ground can create wear and other problems that subtly degrade planter performance during the course of the planting season.
Reduced yields are often blamed on delayed planting dates, but poor stands and uneven emergence due to planter malfunctions can contribute to disappointing yields from late-planted fields. Here are some tips:
- Every once in a while, when all of the seed boxes are empty, open all of the seed meters and visually and manually check that seed meters and delivery systems are operating freely. The strings or labels from seed bags can wrap around the driveshafts of seed meters and interfere with seed movement through the meter. Small rocks tossed from gravel roads by the tires of pickups pulling seed tenders mysteriously get transferred to planter seed hoppers or tanks, where they plug seed tubes or damage seed meters. Believe it or not, I’ve found pens wedged in seed meters that fell from farmers’ shirt pockets while they were filling seed boxes.
- If seed meters aren’t seated squarely over the top of their seed delivery tube, random seeds from the meter may miss the tube and fall alongside the tube and land on the ground surface beside the seed furrow. Clues of misalignment are seeds "riding" on flat surfaces of the row unit beneath the seed meter and occasional seeds on the ground. Reasons for misalignment include bent meter mounting brackets, damaged top ends of seed tubes and row units bent by passing over large rocks.
- If row cleaner bearings don’t turn freely, they can drag furrows that disrupt accurate seed placement and depth. Tine-type row cleaners are magnets for baling twine, seed bag strings and labels, electric fencing wire, old horseshoes and other field debris that jams or prevents the free-wheeling necessary for them to operate correctly. Once a day, walk across the front of the planter and use the toe of your shoe to spin each row cleaner to make certain it spins freely.
- Disk openers with bad bearings wobble on their shaft and are unable to create a uniform, V-shaped seed furrow, or they can lock up and drag, creating a ragged seed furrow. Seed depth and, therefore, emergence timing is degraded. Walk behind a planter and tap each disk opener with a hammer. Odd-sounding "clunks" or an actual rattle when the hammer strikes are hints that it’s time for repairs.
- The sharp edges of gauge wheel tires should "squeegee" the sides of disk openers. If wear or damage creates a gap between the gauge wheel tire and the side of the disk opener, dirt crumbles into the seed furrow and disrupts seed depth. At least two or three times during planting season, with the planter in planting position, visually check to make certain all gauge wheel tires are within 1⁄16" or less of their disk opener.
- Closing wheels that don’t spin freely have a tendency to plug easily with clods, small rocks or root balls. Closing wheels that have frozen bearings drag furrows that can uncover seeds, especially in soybeans and shallow-planted crops. Once a day, walk behind the planter while it is up and out of the soil to check for damaged bearings.
- Because planter driveshaft and drillshaft bearings don’t spin quickly, they don’t self-destruct when they fail in a way that is visually obvious. They just get stiff, turn hard and cause mysterious skips and jumps that don’t show up on the planter monitor but that reveal themselves as poor seed spacing after the crop emerges. Test your driveshaft and drillshaft bearings by putting a wrench on each section of the hexagonal shaft of the planter and giving it a half-turn forward and a half-turn backward. Noticeable differences in the force necessary to turn various shafts on a planter are a hint that there’s a need for exploratory mechanical surgery to identify failing bearings.