Planting hasn't been a simple task since our great grandfathers broadcast seed by hand. Yet in this day of tight economics, some growers and university experts are finding value in focusing their attention on planting.

They have discovered first-hand the value of keeping planters in tip-top shape. They say maintenance done now can boost yield potential and reduce downtime during spring planting.

Six years ago, Gerald Nordick wasn't getting the yields and stands he wanted. He was dissatisfied with his planter's performance and frustrated with the planter maintenance service he was getting. Nordick, who grows 1,500 acres of corn, wheat, soybeans and sunflowers near Rothsay, MN, and is also a Pioneer seed rep., bought a MeterMax system, which tests planter meters.

Seeing the success of the diagnostic tool, Nordick's son, Jared, and a partner started a planter maintenance and repair business.

Mark Danielson of Rothsay, MN, is one of their customers. In some cases, his corn yields had dropped to less than 100 bu./acre because his planter had worn out. He took Nordick's advice, got a new planter and is now back to averaging yields of more than 150 bu./acre. Danielson, who grows 700 acres of corn, soybeans, sunflowers, wheat and alfalfa, and has 50 head of cattle, saw a dramatic increase in yields by increasing the efficiency of his planter. He says by improving the quality of his planter and maintaining it regularly, he's achieved consistent emergence.

“In the past we put the seed meter together in our shop and did the best we could,” Danielson says. “As expensive as inputs are, accurate planting is essential. You can't undo the damage after the seed emerges. Weed control and fertilizer can be corrected, but planting mistakes can't be fixed. With a proper stand, you can maximize yield, even in stress years.”

He adds: “Lots of things you buy are hype — spending money to maintain your planter isn't hype. You get results.”

Universities in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Ontario, Canada, are conducting independent agronomic research on plant-spacing deviations. Those deviations didn't affect grain yield as long as plant populations weren't reduced, says Joe Lauer, extension agronomist, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“In planters not properly tuned, oftentimes plant-stand population is reduced, which does directly correlate to reduced grain yields,” he says. “Plant populations are the key factor growers should look at when preparing for the coming planting season.”

Troy Larson of Larson Farms, Rothsay, MN, another of Nordick's customers, had a puzzling problem on his 3,000-acre operation.

“I had rebuilt a planter, but I still had a couple units where the seed wouldn't go down evenly. I couldn't figure it out. It worked in the shop, but not in the field,” says Larson. “At Jared (Nordick's) recommendation, I put in skip stops from Precision Planting and went out in the field to try it. I put one bag in each unit and they ran evenly. Now we're raising corn my dad never dreamed of — with quality service from the Nordicks, better planting equipment, better hybrids and a climate change in our area.”

Growers should either check their planters themselves or have a professional do so — every year, says Paul Jasa, extension ag engineer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Open the owner's manual,” he says. “Oddly enough, most farmers have never looked to see what to do for routine maintenance.”

Jasa says planters are easy to ignore. “When a farmer finishes planting he figures if it was working when he put it in the shed, he can pull it out in the spring and take off again,” he says. “Since it doesn't have a battery and doesn't need an oil change, most people assume the planter doesn't require maintenance. What they forget is that, with the heating and cooling of metal, moisture condenses on any piece of equipment when it sits in the off-season. This condensation can get into bearings, chains, gearboxes and elsewhere, potentially rusting or damaging the moving parts.”

To offer general maintenance tips is difficult, since each system is so different. But Jasa says if one part on a row unit failed last season, have the same part on the rest of the row units checked in the off-season. “Some farmers won't think about replacing bearings until they fall off in the field,” he says. “Well, at planting time you can't afford to have a half-day down because your equipment doesn't work. You need to keep that planter moving.”

Check each part over as you remove it from the planter, Jasa suggests. “When you take off a depth-gauge wheel, look at the rubber, the bushings it pivots on and check if the arm is bent that supports it,” he says. “If you check a couple row units and they look good, odds are the rest are good, too. If one looks bad, you'd better check out a few more and figure out what's going on.”

Many growers are now planting and applying fertilizer in one trip through the field. Since most fertilizer is corrosive, Jasa advises checking any planter parts that may have come into contact with fertilizer. Then clean and lightly oil the planter before shutting it up in the shed.

The importance of metering system accuracy increases with planting speed and higher populations. “If you're driving 4 mph and planting at populations of 20,000-25,000, a metering error probably doesn't make much difference,” he says. “That seed's not going to move much. But if you're planting at 7 mph at populations of 30,000-35,000, meter errors become massive — a 10% error is a bunch of seed.”

Jasa says growers should aim for uniform emergence, noting that with today's hybrids, plant-stand deviation really doesn't have much impact on yield. In order to achieve uniform emergence, seed should get to the bottom of the seed V.

“I encourage farmers to slow down and plant at 5 mph. That's the speed planters are designed for,” he says. “Companies have worked a lot on seed meters and some have designed systems that turn fast and singulate seed at 7-8 mph. However, when it comes to the planter bouncing around in the field, be careful. You can't get good seed-to-soil contact and uniform planting depth at those speeds.

Using seed firmers, rebounders or seed enforcers — devices designed to ensure uniform seed depth — can be a good investment, he notes. “Achieving uniform seed placement might not be a problem at the beginning of the season when you're going slow. But after three days of rough weather and you're several acres behind, you start picking up speed. That's when seed bounce can be a problem,” says Jasa. “Adding these devices can get the seed back down in the seed V.”

He adds that making sure you have the right size planter can make the difference from rushing across fields and being able to take the time to do the job right.

Profit From Planting Right

“Yield loss can be pretty dramatic. It doesn't take many bushels per acre of lost yield potential to more than make up for what it costs to keep a planter in good condition,” says Bob Nielsen, an extension agronomist at Purdue University.

“You only get one chance to get the crop planted right. If you're going for maximum yields, this is where it begins. That perfect stand might not be the most critical part of achieving maximum yield, but it's one of several puzzle pieces that need to be in place,” he says. “You can fairly easily lose 10-15 bu./acre if you have problems with both uniformity of plant spacing and emergence.”

But, he notes, there's some debate about the impact of plant spacing on yield. He's planning field-scale studies beginning this spring to revisit the topic, which he researched 10 years ago.

Joe Lauer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison, extension agronomist, conducted a recent plant-spacing study.

“We found spacing really didn't affect corn yields unless the standard deviation (plant spacing) was greater than six inches. So basically, those plants were planted in two-plant hills,” he says. “Corn plants have a root system that goes 30-36 in. to the side and 5-7 ft. down, so one inch closer doesn't have a huge impact. And if the spacing variability is much greater than an inch or two, most farmers will notice there's a problem.”

However, both agronomists agree that uniform emergence is critical to achieving maximum yield potential.

Nielsen's rule of thumb: When walking fields before corn is knee high, notice the percentage of plants that are more than a couple of leaf stages behind.

“Those younger plants will get out-competed, and you'll effectively lose population,” he says. “The planter's condition can have a big impact. But planting at higher speeds can also impact uniform plant depth. If you're determined to plant at 7 mph, you should at least monitor what's going on with depth and seed-to-soil contact.”