“It all comes down to the planter. If you don’t get it in the ground right the first time, nothing else matters.” That simple philosophy is at the heart of what Minster, OH, Crop Consultant Bill Lehmkuhl says is one of the most important parts of the crop cycle: getting ready for planting season.

While rain-soaked farmers in many parts of the Corn Belt planted the 2011 crop later than ever, and subsequently shelled corn well into December, Lehmkuhl says it’s never too early to start planning for the next planting.

“Accurate seed placement and the planter is where it starts,” he advises his clients across western Ohio. “Yield is not a function of plant population, but of ear count. If you plant 32,000 seeds, you’d better have 32,000 ears.”

Lehmkuhl starts by inspecting the planter “from hitch pin to closing wheels.” Some aspects of a thorough tune-up can easily be done in the shop, e.g., checking for wear items like parallel arms, lines and hoses, but some work will need to be done in field, like ensuring the planter is level while in motion.

The key concept behind planter maintenance, from Lehmkuhl’s perspective, is creating the ideal seed furrow. That includes checking for proper contact on disc openers (anywhere from 1 to 2.5 in., depending on planter model), keeping uniform down pressure on each row unit, and having the proper attachments in place.

“I don’t care what scenario you’re in tillage-wise, row cleaners on the planter are a must for smoothing out the ride for that row unit and seed meter by moving that residue aside,” he explains. “When it comes to emergence, I want to see everything up in that field within 48 hours. I want it all up within a day or so of that first emergence. You need uniform seed depth and placement to make that happen.”

 

*Plan for rain. Because of a wet 2011 spring in many areas, a high percentage of fields will be in rough shape when planters start rolling this spring. The temptation of “recreational tillage” could make a bad situation even worse.

“Many growers were unable to get back in the field after harvest because of the rains,” says Randall Reeder, an associate Ohio State University ag and bioengineering professor emeritus. “Even long-term no-tillers had ruts and compaction issues this year.”

Comparing soil conditions to those in 2009, Reeder cautions that the best tillage this year may be no tillage at all. “You don’t want to make a bad situation worse by performing deep tillage on wet soils because it destroys the soil structure,” he explains. “If you do tillage you have a looser soil structure, and if we see more rains this spring, that will allow even more compaction issues.”

The cumulative effect is that tillage begets tillage, meaning that by attempting to correct ruts and compaction issues too quickly, farmers could unintentionally create even more rutting and compaction issues later.

Emphasizing the benefits of controlled traffic, Reeder recommends farmers use overly wet conditions as an opportunity to reap the benefits of continuous no-till, which can include strip-till ahead of corn.

“Do the least amount of tillage necessary to get the ground ready for planting,” he advises. “Often a light, shallow tillage operation can smooth out ruts and create a surface ideal, or at least acceptable, for planting.”

*Have a plan B. For Paul Reed, Washington, IA, the best way to prep for planting season is to figure out what can go wrong, and have a game plan in place for when it does.

“Along with going through all the nuts-and-bolts things, we follow a simple management rule: Figure out the three worst things that can happen,” Reed says. “We always have a Plan B so that if we lose a system or monitor, we can continue planting and aren’t stuck on the end rows waiting to get on the phone with a service tech. As our equipment has gotten more complex, so have our problems.”

As one example, Reed says that while his operation relies on GPS and auto-steer, each planter still has mechanical markers in case the GPS system goes down.

The Reed family keeps detailed notes on problems uncovered during the planting season, and incorporates those records into preparing for the next season. By focusing on what went wrong, they improve planning for what might go wrong in the future.

“Keep the wheels turning to take advantage of a limited planting window,” Reed says. “Crops yield by planting date, so you have to take advantage of the planting days available. If you have only 10 or 12 days in an ideal planting window, being able to keep rolling is a big deal.”

He advises systematically checking each planter system, from hydraulic and air-pressure systems to fertilizer and seed delivery components, looking for worn items that need replaced prior to planting. While conducting that basic planter maintenance, take stock of what parts, systems or monitors are likely to go down at some point during planting, and have replacements on hand.

“Every one of those systems can and will have something go wrong,” Reed says. “How well and how quickly you can overcome those problems is paramount to keep planting.”