Setbacks this spring will likely cost bushels this fall. That's why it's vital to prepare all crop plans, equipment and inputs prior to planting, suggest several Midwestern crop and machinery experts.

“To maximize yields, you'll need to get off to a good start,” says Bob Nielsen, Purdue University Extension agronomist. “It comes down to doing things right the first time, because you may only have one shot to get it right.”

Farmers will increase their odds of planting on time if they sketch out important details beforehand, says Nielsen. For example, he advises to list each seed lot you purchase and note your per-pound seed sizes.

“Get the planter manual out and look for the proper seed disc settings or air/vacuum pressure ranges for each seed size and jot them down on your list,” he says. “Proper settings can change dramatically from seed lot to seed lot, so keep your list of recommendations in your tractor cab and change settings when you change hybrids.”

Making notes and preparations before heading to the field will save you time, stress and trouble when the busy spring season is in full swing, Nielsen adds. “Plan ahead,” he urges. “Think everything through.”

In fact, anticipating potential problems is the top tip gleaned from several experienced crop and machinery specialists from across the Midwest.

Here's an overview of their top 10 tips for a smooth spring start:

  1. Anticipate difficulties

    “Anticipate the problems that are likely to occur on specific fields, and plan on ways to solve those problems,” advises Bill Craig, Maxi-Yield Consultant Services, Carlinville, IL. “Draw up a plan for each specific field — the tillage, hybrids, fertilizer, herbicides, seed treatments or insecticides that fit best for each situation, and then follow through on your plan.”

    In 2005, farmers will need to ensure fertilizer applications are particularly well thought out, Craig says. “With high prices expected this spring, carefully plan the rate you'll need for each field,” he advises. “To find the best price, examine multiple sources of fertilizer in all its forms.”

  2. Stock and store crop inputs on the farm

    Steve Keck, a Plainview, NE, crop consultant, advises farmers to have all seed, fertilizer and crop protection inputs in place “no later than 30 days before planting.”

    Dale Hicks, University of Minnesota Extension agronomist agrees, but cautions farmers to stay flexible and be prepared to alter input decisions based on field conditions. For example, if rain delays planting dates significantly, “reserve the right to make changes in hybrid selection,” says Hicks. “Always plant the highest-yielding hybrids and maturities for the time that you plant.”

  3. Tune-up, calibrate and test machinery

    Each piece of equipment should be checked, adjusted and calibrated well before the time it's needed, says Mark Hanna, Iowa State Extension ag engineer. “Allot a half-day to make final adjustments to machinery,” he advises.

    Nielsen agrees. “Calibrate all your equipment ahead of time, before you get to the field,” he advises. “Also check the calibration when starting each new field operation, such as adding a planter-applied starter fertilizer or an insecticide treatment.”

    Other tasks include checking planter and implement frames to ensure they are straight and level, with no broken welds, says Hanna. “Get off the tractor after one or two rounds to make sure you're getting the right action you want,” he advises. “Make sure the hitch is level for even depth of operation, especially when incorporating herbicide.”

    Farmers should also check planter monitors, reminds Keck. “Typically, the first day out the planter monitor tends to give a guy more fits than anything else,” he says. “For a minor fee you can send your monitor in to be checked out and tuned up.”

  4. Check seed-metering units carefully

    Go over the planter's seed-metering units thoroughly and look for worn-out or broken parts, advises Nielsen. “If you lack the time or expertise, it may be worth getting units looked over prior to planting,” he says. “That holds true for planters of any kind.”

    Besides ensuring that the seed metering systems are up-to-date and calibrated, the main items to check are wear on seed plates or cut-off brushes, says Hanna. On John Deere vacuum planters, he recommends checking for worn grooves on the rubber seal outside the plastic plate or for warped plates that don't maintain a seal.

  5. Give planters priority

    “A crop can be no better than the planter allows it to be,” says Craig. “Make sure it's calibrated, serviced and ready to go by the end of March.”

    In addition to seed-metering units, farmers should also check soil-engaging components, Hanna says. For example, closing wheels need to be aligned properly for good seed placement. Also, seed-firming points and double-disc seed openers may need adjustment or replacement.

    “The depth-gauge wheels should be resting in firm contact with the soil,” says Hanna. “Otherwise, you may be planting at the wrong depth. If adjusted properly, it should be difficult to turn the depth wheels when the planter is resting on the ground, even if the planter boxes are empty.”

  6. Start planting when conditions allow

    Most farmers can't afford to wait for perfect conditions to begin planting, says Hicks. He advises you to start planting corn when seedbed conditions are “reasonably good.” He adds that farmers should also ensure they have the “equipment needed to plant corn in seven days or less and soybeans in three or four days.”

    Nielsen agrees that waiting for optimal conditions may be unwise. “Most guys know when the soil is fit,” he says. “It's probably worth the risk of starting to plant early rather than risk the chance of subsequent poor weather causing you to finish planting in June. It's a tricky compromise that farmers face.”

  7. Plant best-drained fields first

    Begin planting in fields with the best seedbeds, says Hicks. Typically, the best-drained fields will create the best seedbeds earliest, he adds.

    Nielsen says for aggressive early planting, choose fields with good drainage and south-facing slopes that warm up quicker. “Little things like that can give you an edge,” he says.

  8. Consider starter fertilizer and lime

    If planting early, consider a starter fertilizer and a slight boost in plant populations, advises Hicks.

    Craig also advises checking soil pH levels. “During the last several years, lime hasn't been up to snuff,” he says. “The pH drops more quickly in some years than in others, so check soil tests regularly.”

  9. Monitor and market stored grain

    During the busy spring rush it's easy to overlook stored grain, says Keck. “Farmers sometimes lose more money by forgetting about corn in the bin than they make by being in the field on time to plant a new crop,” he says. “You need to monitor grain quality regularly and react quickly if grain develops hot spots or starts to deteriorate.”

  10. Stay safe

    Use tractors with rollover protections systems and ensure that slow-moving vehicle emblems, reflective tape and lighting are in place and up-to-date, Hanna advises. Replace tail lights promptly, he adds.

    “Tractor accidents and overturns are still a big issue, especially during transport,” he says. He also suggests taking a cell phone into the field to let loved ones know when you move from one field to another.