Consider planter for precise spacing

Higher yield with less seed | Air seeders equipped with regulators for smaller seeds work, but not as well as a planter

CARMAN, Man. — Corn and soybean frontiers push further north and west each year, driven by improved varieties, new technology and possibly a warming climate.

This creates new seeding challenges for farmers accustomed to putting cereal and canola seeds through an air seeding system.

Although manufacturers have had success adapting air systems to corn and soybeans, planters are typically required to achieve the seed singulation that those high value crops need.

Seedmaster’s Norbert Beaujot, who has developed corn and canola meters that combine the two systems, says they are as close to planter regulated as can be expected from air seeding systems.

He said it isn’t an issue for crops that are seeded half an inch apart, such as wheat or flax, but it becomes more important for corn, canola, sunflowers and possibly chickpeas, which have ideal plant spacing of two to 14 inches and high seed costs.

Farmers need to consider the planter to become more precise, said farmer Craig Shaw of Lacombe, Alta., who has spearheaded a canola and planter project that has one working on a few local farms and the local Agriculture Canada research centre.

“If we can even up the canola crop, have it not compete with itself for nutrients and stunting out and killing smaller seedlings and generally be more efficient in our production, it might be five bushels more (yield) and save a couple of pounds of seed,” he said at Canada’s Farm Progress Show held recently in Regina.

“Is that $70 dollars an acre? Or more?”

By their very nature, corn plants hate each other. Planted too close together, they battle to the death for supremacy.

If one seed emerges a day behind its cousin, the big cousin views it as a weed and expends a lot of expensive energy trying to kill it. That’s why a successful corn stand needs perfect uniformity of seed distribution within the seed row.

Corn growers spend $80 to $90 per acre on seed, so they expect precise planting.

Soybeans aren’t as antagonistic toward each other, but singulation still makes for better yields, say agronomists. Beans planted with a planter are nearly identical in size and weight at maturity, while those planted with an air system have lower yield and a greater range in size and weight of the beans.

Soybean seed with inoculation starts at $95 per acre. Beans planted in a planter require 160,000 to 180,000 seeds per acre, while an air fed drill requires 200,000 to 220,000.

Novice row croppers on the Prairies might not want to spend $100,000 to $250,000 on the latest planter technology, but a few are buying used planters for $20,000 to $30,000.

Planters made by Deere, Case, Monosem and Kinze typically have four to 16 rows. Most of the older units would likely be on 36 inch row centres and some may still have the finger style singulators. The newer planters typically have narrower spacing and use a vacuum system for seed selection.

Seed grower Rob Park is a former oilseeds agronomist for Manitoba Agriculture who farms 2,000 acres at Carman, Man. He said his father started planting corn in the early 1980s using a four row John Deere machine on 36 inch rows. They have gradually moved up to an early 1990s 12 row JD on 30 inch rows that they expect to keep a few more years.

“We’ve always had John Deere planters. That’s not to say Deere is necessarily the best, but it’s the most popular planter so it’s easier to get parts and there are a lot of options and configurations available,” said Park.

“We paid $25,000 three years ago. Since then, we’ve put in 1,000 acres of soybeans and 400 to 500 acres of corn each year. It will go on forever at that pace as long as we stay on top of the maintenance.”

He thinks 1,500 acres a year is about the maximum a person can cover with a 12 row planter, especially if soybeans are in the mix.

He stops to fill every 22 acres when seeding soybeans, once every hour or so.

“I think the economics of corn and soybeans, and maybe someday the economics of lower seeding rates in canola, will prompt a lot of farmers to start looking for used planters,” he said.

“And there are a lot of them for sale in southern Manitoba, southern Alberta and the northern States.”

Park said producers should buy according to the wear on the machine rather than the year of the machine. Finding a good one may require some detective work.

He said there’s an abundance of used planters in the States that are less than five years old. But at that tender age, many are already fodder for the scrap heap.

“Here in southern Manitoba, you’ll find a lot of good used planters that are about 10 years old and the guy only planted 1,000 acres a year. That’s 10,000 acres,” he said.

“A lot of those U.S. planters do 10,000 acres or more in a year, and they push them hard down there. I think that if the paint looks good and there’s no welding repairs, it’s probably a decent piece of machinery.”

He said structural integrity is vital in any type of in-ground equipment. A planter has a heavy draft that puts a lot of force on the frame, just like an air drill or cultivator. Farmers shouldn’t assume that a planter is an easier pull or can’t be damaged. Weld repairs, added braces and gussets tell the history of the machine.

“Loose or wobbly packing wheels are one of the very first signs of a planter that’s been beaten up,” he said.

“If the packers are sloppy and loose, or if they’re seized up, it’s a good indication the machine has seen some rough use and a lot of acres.

“Gauge wheels are the next indicator. If they’re loose or wobbly, those expensive seeds won’t go where they’re supposed to go. And precise seed placement is the reason for buying a planter in the first place. You defeat your purpose if the machine isn’t giving you precise seed placement.

“You’re in for a larger rebuild project if the packers and gauge wheels are bad. It’s do-able, but it takes a lot more time and money.”

The double opening discs need to be examined closely. Park said it’s essential they meet at the forward point of the V so soil spreads left and right. Soil passes through to clog up the seed trench if the V tip isn’t closed up tight at the front. When that happens, seeds cannot drop onto the bottom of a clean firm seedbed on the trench bottom.

“If you have one inch of wear on the discs, you will not get a clean opening for the seedbed. You don’t want any soil sneaking through the tip of the V where the discs meet.”

Park said the seed selection plates on the seed metering mechanism wear over time and need to be replaced. The brushes that keep the seed selection discs clean should be replaced every 2,000 acres.

When seed leaves the metering unit, it drops into the seed tube and then down into the trench if the tube is in good condition. The tube runs in the soil in the trench so it is susceptible to wear.

“The seed tube needs to be checked. If there’s a problem in the tubes, seed won’t fall directly into the channel,” he said.

“It falls slightly off to the side where they have a distinct disadvantage. You want every seed to drop straight down into the channel.”

Park said he’s never had a problem with the bearings in the metering housing. However, seals must be replaced every few years to maintain the correct vacuum.

“I’ve got to emphasize that if the vacuum isn’t tight and secure, the planter will not function correctly.”

He said there is an annual cost associated with running an older planter.

His 12-row unit has more than 200 bearings, ranging in price from $10 to $25 each. Some need replacement every year, while others go for a decade or longer. He said that kind of maintenance is essential for the machine to function as designed.

A vacuum planter is easy to use and maintain once farmers figure it all out, he added. It’s easy to change the seed plates for different crops, and most adjustments and part replacements are simple.

Park said a used planter can be a good investment and can help increase profits, but it’s a precise piece of machinery that provides less value to the grower if it doesn’t function correctly.

“On our next move up, we’ll go bigger for sure, and we’ll want newer technology. We’ll probably look pretty closely at Case IH. They have a number of unique advances in recent years,” he said.

“As for new or used, it will definitely be used. As long as we’re only doing 1,500 acres a year, I can’t justify $125,000 or more for a new planter. Some of my contract seed growers are buying new planters, but they’re putting in 3,000 or 4,000 acres a year, so they need new equipment and the latest technology. For me, used planters work just fine.”

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