How to adjust your planter to fit the conditions
Quickly reacting to changing conditions and making appropriate planter adjustments will have a big impact on crop emergence and early season growth.
Planting into suboptimal conditions tends to be the biggest challenge to planter performance and early stand establishment. More can be lost by planting into poor field conditions than can be gained by giving the crop a few more days in the ground. Pressure often mounts to push the edge of acceptable planting conditions in a difficult year and this year is certainly looking to qualify as one of those. In situations like this, being quick to react to changing conditions and make appropriate planter adjustments can make a big difference in what the crop looks like coming out of the ground and how early season growth progresses.
For most producers, the goal of planter setup is to get acceptable and consistent performance across the different soil types and field conditions they may encounter. The specific setup for a planter will depend largely on the conditions in which the planter will be operating – no-till or conventional till, sandy or clay soil, wet or dry conditions. Successful crop establishment often comes down to understanding how conditions affect planter performance and what adjustments to the planter will optimize performance in a given situation. The following are stock and after-market planter tools that can help fine-tune planter performance.
Row cleaners/opening coulters. Uniform planting depth and spacing starts with ensuring gauge wheels are operating in uniform conditions. The primary goal of the tools preceding your gauge wheels is to create a uniform seedbed by clearing residue from the planting strip. This is also going to have the added benefit of increasing the soil temperature and speeding emergence. With these tools, keep an eye on how they are moving soil. Some soil movement isn’t necessarily bad, but if they are bringing up clods, creating a depression in the row or doing anything to increase the variability of the planting strip, the setup should be adjusted.
Seed firmers. Achieving good seed to soil contact is crucial for germination. In heavier or wet soils, it can be particularly problematic to get the seed well seated at the bottom of the seed trench. Seed firmers are an easy planter addition to ensure the seed is well placed in moisture and won’t lose soil contact as soil shrinks from drying.
Rubber-edged closing wheels. These are the typical closing wheel stock options on many planters. The specific wheels differ by manufacturer, but they are characterized by moderate down pressure that closes the seed furrow and firms the seedbed. These work best in friable, drier soil and tilled conditions. In clay, wet or no-till soils, these wheels may struggle to close the seed furrow.
Cast iron closing wheels. Cast wheels are heavier than rubber wheels and have sharper edges. These wheels are more aggressive than rubber wheels. Cast wheels may create too much downforce on wet, tilled soils, but can be a good option in no-till fields. The biggest concern is the tendency for these wheels to exert too much pressure, deforming the seed furrow and making seed emergence difficult.
Spiked closing wheels. There are a number of closing wheels available that feature some sort of protrusions from the wheel. Sometimes they’ll be paired with a rubber wheel, often they function in tandem. These units are designed to fracture the seed trench wall and leave the soil above the furrow loose and unfirmed. The degree to which you might want to promote these actions will depend a lot on your seedbed conditions. Spiked closing wheels of some type may be your best choice if you find your stock closing wheel performance lacking.
Drag chains. Chains trailing behind the press wheels are designed to provide a final closing operation, lightly firming the seed furrow and leveling the planting strip. If crusting tends to be an issue, these might be an attractive option. The effectiveness of these chains will be dependent on conditions. They will tend to pull soil onto the seed furrow and conditions will dictate if this benefits or hinders seed emergence. A nice feature of chains is the ease to which they can be taken off the soil surface. If they are smearing the soil, simply tie them up or pull a pin and take them off.
The key to using planter add-ons starts with knowing and understanding their applications and limitations. This year, take some time to dig around in the seed furrow, not only just after the planter, but also on a few occasions early in the season across your soil types and planting conditions. Think about keeping a short log of the planting conditions to see how they might correlate with plant emergence and growth. More than anything, be sure to keep an eye on your planter setup as conditions change. The little changes to improve seedbed conditions can have a big impact on crop performance.