Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Planter Clinics

Yesterday Jennings County Indiana Soil and Water Conservation District called to see if I would teach two planter clinics in their county, one February 22 and one the next day. I said yes and both clinics will be in farm shops with planters inside.

I have done these many times before but they always make me a little bit edgy as I am probably the worst mechanic in the room-I have the least mechanical aptitude, just ask my wife who assembles all the stuff we buy.

I know the theory pretty well and have done clinics from Maine to Alaska to New Zealand. It's a good thing my friend Andy Vance was doing an article on the subject so I have a recent base to work from.

Here is what Andy wrote:

Corn & Soybean Digest – January 2012

Gearing Up For Planting

“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 crop consultant Bill Lehmkuhl says is one of the most important parts of the crop cycle: getting ready for planting season. While farmers in many parts of the Corn Belt planted the 2011 crop later than ever, and subsequently shelled corn well into December, he says getting ready to plant the next crop should never be far from top of mind.

“Be aware that accurate spacing 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. That final ear count is what drives yield. If you plant 32,000 seeds, you’d better have 32,000 ears.”

He says the process 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 trench. That includes checking for proper contact on disc openers (anywhere from 1 to 2.5 inches, 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 from the standpoint of smoothing the ride out 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. The first time you see corn spiking up through, I want it all up within a day or so, and you need uniform seed depth and placement to make that happen.”

Rain Makes Grain, but Too Much of a Good Thing…

Because many parts of the Corn Belt received excess precipitation during the 2011 planting and harvest seasons, a high percentage of fields will be in rough shape when the time comes for planters to start rolling this Spring. The temptation toward what one agricultural engineer calls “recreational tillage” could make a bad situation even worse.

“Many farmers were unable to get back in the field after harvest because of the rains,” says Randall Reeder, an associate professor emeritus in Ohio State University’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “Even long-term no-tillers had ruts and compaction issues this year.”

Comparing soil conditions to those seen in 2009, Reeder cautions that the best course of action when it comes to tillage this year may be no action 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 a learning opportunity, and to consider 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.”

Accept Murphy’s Law, and Prepare a “Plan B”

For Paul Reed of Washington, Iowa, the best way to prep for planting season is to figure out what can go wrong, and have a game plan in place that assumes if it can go wrong, it will go wrong at some point.

“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 automatic steering, each planter still has mechanical markers in the eventuality that the GPS system goes down. Planting can continue using markers, rather than stalling while a technological solution is found.

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

“The name of the game is to 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 system on the planter, from hydraulic and air pressure systems to fertilizer and seed delivery components, looking for wear 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.”



Making a List and Checking It Twice

Christmas may be over, but Ohio-based crop consultant and blogger Ed Winkle advises taking Santa’s advice when it comes to planter preparations.

“Tear apart the planter today,” he says. “We tore our planter apart three times during all the rain last year, and we found something every time. We knew the planter so well that as soon as we had a breakdown, we knew where it was and how to fix it with no down time. The worst thing you can do is drag the planter out of the barn and try to go plant.”

With that in mind, Winkle shares his planter-prep checklist:

Go through each row unit piece by piece.
Go through the seeding mechanism, and match the planter to the seed size you are getting.
Go over all stress parts, as well as the frame, wheels and bearings. “You think the part isn’t worn out, but it is. Replace it. You can’t afford to stretch parts too far anymore.”
Go through hydraulics with books and gauges.
Go through 12-volt system front to back.
Go through electronics, including GPS-related modules and monitors.

What do you think, O Ye planter wizards and wannabe's? The planter in the picture is a modified Kinze after one of my talks ten years ago and still ticks like a clock after years of maintenance and thousands in profits.


Ed Winkle

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