Your Planting Season Resource

April 17, 2019 11:49 AM
Tips to troubleshoot planter issues, gather tools for the field, prioritize communication, manage to-do lists and enjoy cab time

Spring planting season is a hopeful yet anxious time. The days are short and tensions run high. Equipment breaks down and communication does too. Meals are quick and a full night’s sleep is rare. Our goal with this planting season package is that the information will come in handy at just the right time.

3 Planter Performance Tips to Check Every Time You Pull Into a Field

Think of planting not merely as dropping seeds in soil but as creating a microenvironment for growth around every seed. Every time you pull into a new field, make a partial pass and then stop to evaluate the following:

Planting Depth

As a rule of thumb, proper planting depth is around 2" deep, explains Farm Journal Field Agronomist Missy Bauer.

“This depth is considered standard because that’s where we typically see consistent moisture in the soil,” she says.

“In cold conditions, farmers might want to go shallower to 1¾" but no more than that. “If you’re too shallow, you won’t get good crown root development because the crown of the plant is ¾" below the soil surface,” Bauer explains.

If there isn’t moisture available at 2", plant a bit deeper to ensure adequate moisture.

To check depth, carefully scrape back soil to find the seed. Lay a ruler or flat item level across the furrow then measure from the item down to the seed. That identifies your planting depth.

It’s important to confirm planting depth is correct across the planter as well, Bauer says.

Down Pressure

Planters equipped with adjustable down pressure, sensors and monitors make it easier to deal with variable soil conditions. You still have to physically check planting depth to verify monitor readings, says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. If you don’t have that technology, he recommends going to the part of the field that’s toughest to plant. Stop the planter, leaving the planting units in the ground. Grab the depth-gauge wheels and see if you can turn them. If you can’t move them, you have too much down pressure. If they spin easily, you have too little.

When you make a down pressure change, ground truth it elsewhere in the field to make sure you’re not smearing the sidewall where conditions are better, Ferrie adds.

Closing Wheels

The simplicity of closing wheel systems on planters contradicts their importance. “Closing wheels have two functions: close the furrow and firm the soil around the seed,” Bauer says. If you dig behind the planter and see a seam in the cross-section of the trench, that’s a sign you could have air pockets, which will lead to poor germination and uneven emergence.

“You want to find the seed at the bottom of the trench with enough firm soil over the top of it to prevent the area from drying out,” she explains.

Pay attention to the effectiveness of your closing wheel when you change tillage types. If you switch from conventional tillage to no-till, use wheels that serve both types well, Bauer adds.

Learn more about just how much down pressure is enough here.

Pay Attention to the Markets

Just because you’re busy in the field doesn’t mean you can neglect marketing. “Nine times out of 10, the market gives the best opportunity when you don’t have time to pay attention,” says Angie Setzer, vice president for Citizens Elevator in Charlotte, Mich.

That goes for old crop too. “Be ready to move old crop,” Setzer adds. “Sometimes the best basis opportunities come when you’re busy. Have logistics in place to take advantage of good bids.”

Yes, it’s impossible to predict the exact direction of the markets. However, spend some time and effort focusing on the conditions you can manage, and you’ll have a better idea of what profit margins are realistic for your farm and the confidence to capture opportunities. Chris Barron, president of Carson and Barron Farms in Rowley, Iowa, provides the advice at right:

1. Identify what you currently know.

  • Percent of grain that is currently sold and average price.
  • Available storage (on farm or at the elevator).

2. Estimate your total crop production.

  • Run several scenarios.
  • Continue to improve your estimate as the crop matures.

3. Set realistic profit margin goals.

  • Know your cost of production.
  • Know your yield potential.
  • Set practical price targets.
  • Start sales with bushels that exceed your storage capacity.
  • Be disciplined, not greedy.

5 Ways to Keep Your Finances On Track

It’s easy this time of year to shift all of your focus to production. But now is also a critical time to update, revise and analyze your budget, as well as spending, liquidity and other business measurements.

“We are dealing with low commodity prices and other financial challenges, and more are likely ahead,” says Chris Barron, president of Carson and Barron Farms in Rowley, Iowa, and a financial consultant for Ag View Solutions. “Being proactive now can save us from some potentially catastrophic problems in the future.”

Barron outlines the financial checklist at right to stay on track:

1. Monthly Pulse

At the end of each month, generate consistent reports that show cash on hand and loan balances. Review accounts receivable and accounts payable. Examine the balances of any lines of credit, including all other third-party loans and seed or crop-protection loans.

2. Cash Flow

Stay focused on cash flow, which is one of the most important categories to monitor. Track it weekly or, at a minimum, monthly. Compare projected versus actual cash flow, and keep your projections current.

3. Production Costs

Analyze spending on each input line item. Question spending on anything that isn’t directly, or at least indirectly, related to productivity.

4. Debt Service

Evaluate total principal and interest payments quarterly. Are you able to stay current on all payments? Are your payments for long- and short-term debts feasible on a per-acre basis?

5. Working Capital

Do you have ample liquidity to operate from one year to the next? If cash is tight, what options do you have to access additional capital? If cash is sufficient, are you maximizing opportunities?

Tools and Spare Parts to Keep Your Planter Rolling

By the end of planting season you’ll have accumulated in your planter tractor the tools and spare parts necessary to repair the breakdowns you experienced. The trick is to have all those necessities in the tractor, or stashed in nearby support vehicles, before planting starts so repairs are as quick and painless as possible. Here’s a list from mechanic Dan Anderson of parts and pieces that could come in handy:

  • Assorted roll pins and cotter keys. That way you won’t have to rob a rusty 8-penny nail from a fallen-down building at an abandoned farmstead to replace the roll pin or cotter key that broke in a drillshaft coupler or drive clutch.
  • O-rings. Gather an assortment of standard and flat-face rubber O-rings. The two types of O-rings are not interchangeable, even if your neighbor, brother or cousin swears they are.
  • Tape. A roll of duct tape, Gorilla Tape or, even better, “tile tape” (used when working with plastic drainage tile) are a must. They’re all great ways to patch holes, cracks and leaks in flexible air hoses on vacuum planters. They’ve also been used to patch holes or cracks in planter seed hoppers and seed hopper lids.
  • One or more pairs of 10” Vise-Grips. You’ll find a way to use them at least once before planting is finished.
  • 12" adjustable wrench. A “crescent wrench” will come in handy for rotating hex driveshafts to align the holes in couplers so you can install the previously mentioned roll pins and cotter keys. It’s also useful when replacing broken marker arm breakaway shear bolts.
  • Bolts and nuts. Grab a supply of marker arm breakaway shear bolts and nuts.
  • Hammer and punches with ¼" tips. It’s a guarantee you’ll have to drive the remnants of broken roll pins, cotter keys and shear bolts out of couplers, driveshafts and marker arms.
  • Lubricant. In order to replace a bearing, you’ll need a can of WD-40, JB-80 or other penetrating lubricant to lube hex drill- or driveshafts that need to be slid through all the bearings on a section of planter frame.
  • Flat file. Even after lubrication, you might need to smooth rough edges or irregular spots on hex shafts that refuse to slide through bearings.
  • Zip ties. Lots of zip ties, ranging in size from  1/8"x4" to ¾"x16", for tying up dangling wiring harnesses and hydraulic hoses.
  • Straps. An assortment of 16" or longer rubber tarp straps will do the trick to strap things in place where zip ties won’t work.
  • Owner’s manual for the planter. This is a must-have if only for the seeding rate charts. If you don’t want to subject your owner’s manual to the rigors of life in a tractor cab, make copies of important pages and laminate them.
  • Wire cutter/stripper and an assortment of heat-shrink electric wire butt connectors. To repair pinched or broken wires in wiring harnesses, please don’t finger-twist wires together or use screw-on “wire nuts” designed for household wiring. Many planter-related electrical circuits use as little as 4.5 volts, making them extremely sensitive to sketchy wire repairs. Use crimp-on butt connectors with heat-shrink sheaths to create strong, moisture-resistant electrical repairs. Be sure to have a cigarette lighter, matches or a small butane torch handy.
  • Seed tube sensors. Seed tube sensors in older planters fail often enough to justify keeping a spare sensor on hand, even though they can cost around $100. The latest generation of seed tube or seed belt sensors have proven to be remarkably reliable and are less apt to fail. That’s a good thing because they can cost in excess of $500 each.

Make Safety a Priority

While safety should be a top priority all year long, spring planting means long days in the tractor and working with treated seeds and chemicals. Be sure to have the right safety equipment on hand for everyone—gloves for each job and ear and eye protection. Make sure emergency contact information is easily accessible.

Learn what to do if an employee gets hurt here.

Avoid Communication Breakdowns

Don’t let the chaos of planting season cause misunderstandings and stress. The common denominator that separates a successful operation from one that struggles is the ability to communicate effectively,” says Chris Barron, president of Carson and Barron Farms in Rowley, Iowa. Make sure you are having meaningful conversations with these key partners:


Does everyone have a clear and concise list of their roles and responsibilities? Too often when we’re extremely busy we give mediocre directions (at best). That’s typically when machines are broken or someone gets hurt. Consider implementing a self-reporting policy, which means if someone breaks something and reports it immediately no one gets in trouble.


When all the action is happening around the farm, it’s the perfect time to invite your lender out to visit. Loan renewal time and analyzing the numbers are critical parts of your lender relationships; however, the conversations you have in the pickup or tractor might be the most valuable. Seeing you in action and building your relationship can only benefit your business.


Invite landowners to see spring fieldwork, especially on their own farms. The more they see, the easier it is to convince them land improvement projects are worth the investment. Sometimes seeing things from the tractor seat gives them a similar perspective to you, instead of expecting them to see your point of view from their house or even miles away.

Set Priorities to Manage Time

During busy seasons, start each morning with a short meeting. Go over the plan for the day and ask two questions of the team: Does anyone need help? Did anyone learn anything everyone should know?

This is not a coffee break. It is the framework for how everyone can maximize their time. “Set priorities for the day and then revisit the list during the day,” says Joe Horner, University of Missouri Extension economist.

Learn how to eliminate excessive time wasters and maximize your time here.

Deepen Your Bench By Cross-Training Employees

Downtime during planting can be a big cost for your farm. Be sure your team can fire on all cylinders by cross-training them, suggests says Bob Milligan, senior consultant at Dairy Strategies and former Cornell University professor.

“Cross-training is about two important issues,” he says. “It helps you maximize your team’s productivity and ensures the well-being of your employees.”

Write down all the tasks to complete during planting season. Then, identify who oversees each operation, who the key operator is and who else is qualified and trained to do the task.

This process makes sure everyone is working a reasonable number of hours and that you have multiple people qualified for each operation. It also reduces stress if you need an employee to fill in unexpectedly. During the training process, write down key steps and develop standard operating procedures (SOPs), Milligan suggests.

3 Ways to Focus on Your Health During Long Days

Sleep. “Try to get good quality sleep; we say seven to eight hours but we know that’s hard when you’re running against the clock,” says Charlotte Halverson, Agrisafe Network clinical director.

She suggests taking rest breaks for 10 to 15 minutes in the late morning or afternoon, and don’t overindulge in caffeinated drinks later in the day.

Nutrition. Eat nutritious meals and have healthy snacks within reach. “High protein, such as dried fruits and nuts, can be a quick snack to really help keep you focused,” Halverson says.

Drink plenty of water, even if that means you have to stop to go to the bathroom, she adds.

Exercise. Take stretch breaks to help your physical and mental health and take your mind off what you’re doing for a few minutes.

Read more about six exercises to enhance your mobility after long hours in the tractor or truck here.

Enjoy Your Time in the Cab

How can you maximize your hours in the field? Listen to an audio book or two. Regardless of your interests, there are great books that can make the hours slip away. For example:

If you’re a history buff …

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

Want a story that combines heroism, adventure, hardships and astounding sights? Look no further than this masterful telling of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which covered 8,000 miles in less than three years. Length: 21 hours, 40 minutes

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

On the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1903, two brothers changed history. This well-written and well-researched book tells the dramatic story about the brothers who taught the world how to fly. Learn how they reached this achievement. Length: 10 hours, 2 minutes

If you’re a sports fan …

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

From humble backgrounds, nine men demonstrated every virtue imaginable in their quest to compete at the highest level in an elite sport. Mixed with the politics of Hitler and the 1936 Olympics, this true story couldn’t have been invented with more intensity. Length: 14 hours, 24 minutes

If you want to up your management game …

Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman

What is your farm’s vision? If it’s not clear or defined, use this book as a guide. “Without vision, you have no traction for your business,” Wickman says. Every time you revisit this book, you’ll get a fresh perspective on your operation. Length: 6 hours, 56 minutes

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Grit is about tenacity and the ability to reach a goal over a long period of time—despite challenges, adversity or external factors. Success is not just about diligence, but also about facing problems and continually coming up with solutions. Sounds like farming, right? Length: 9 hours, 22 minutes

If you like firsthand accounts …

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

This eye-opening book is especially powerful hearing the author read it. It follows J.D. Vance’s life from poor, working-class Appalachia to Yale Law School. He gives an intimate look into the hardships facing the working-class poor who are dealing with the pace of change. Length: 6 hours, 49 minutes

If you’re in need of a few laughs …

Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop by Nick Offerman

If you’re familiar with “Parks and Recreation,” you have an idea of who the character Ron Swanson is in real life. An avid woodworker, Nick Offerman combines his humor with woodworking advice to introduce or reinvigorate the passion woodworkers celebrate in their craft. Length: 6 hours, 7 minutes

If you have a really long planting season ahead of you …

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

A love story, an adventure and an epic of the frontier, this cowboy classic might be just what you need to face a marathon planting season. Journey to the dusty Texas town of Lonesome Dove and meet an unforgettable assortment of heroes and outlaws. Length: 36 hours, 47 minutes

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