We're venturing out of the shop this time and following our handiwork to the field. All the careful maintenance and adjusting we do to planters in the shop is wasted if the operator doesn't take time to match planter settings to soil conditions. Here are six critical adjustments. Do them right and they optimize yields. Do them wrong and you're looking at up to 10 bu/ac yield reduction:
- Level the planter. The planter frame tube between the tractor and the planting units should be parallel to the ground and the two parallel linkages that connect each seed box/row unit to the planter main frame should be roughly parallel to the ground, when the planter is in planting position. If the planter isn't level, the disk openers, gauge wheels and closing wheels won't work together as they need to for optimum seed placement.
- Avoid using too much down pressure on row units. Excessive down pressure forces the gauge wheels against the soil beside the disk openers, packing the sides of the seed furrow. I've got photos of corn that's knee high where the roots are intertwined and running parallel to the row, with little root development between the rows. The cause? Excessive down-pressure on the gauge wheels that packed the seed furrow walls. Quick test for down pressure: with the planter lowered in the field, try turning individual gauge wheels by hand. You should be able, with effort and two hands, to turn a gauge wheel 1/4 turn when it's pressing against the soil.
- If you use seed firmer wands: If you see mud clinging to the plastic wands, either stop planting or remove the wands. If mud is sticking to that super-slick plastic, it's probably too wet to be in the field. But if circumstances require that you plant into less than optimum soil conditions, remove the wands until conditions dry. The bits of mud sticking to the wands will drag seeds in the furrow and disturb accurate seed spacing.
- Use only enough down-pressure on closing wheels to close the seed furrow. It's tempting to pack the seeds into the furrow with extra closing wheel pressure, but compacted soil is the enemy of seedling roots. Dig behind the planter. If the screwdriver or digging tool requires effort to dig down to seeds, or if the soil moves in chunks, reduce closing wheel down-pressure.
- Dig in every field. Dig several times in every field. Modern tractor cabs full of sophisticated seed monitors, autosteer, and planter performance monitors make it easy to do everything from the cab. Every field has different soil, and many fields have soils that vary from one side to the other. The ONLY way to know if seeds are being accurately placed into the soil is to dig, dig, dig.
I've noticed that retired farmers--fathers, uncles, neighbors--who want to be part of spring planting but no longer operate equipment make EXCELLENT planter monitors. Give them a digging tool and a chart of how deep, and the correct seed spacing for each field, and tell them they're in charge of planter accuracy. They LOVE getting on the cell phone or CB radio and telling the planter operator that they're doing something wrong. It may be hard to stop planting long enough to make adjustments and satisfy those old gentlemen, but next fall you'll be glad you did.
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