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Calibrating for Top Planter Performance

Friday, February 1, 2013
filed under: Planting Systems

Skips happen. But maybe they don’t have to. As a planter drops more than a dozen seeds a second, it’s difficult to manage every seed that’s landing into the row. However, difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Equal distribution of plants is essential to obtaining the maximum yield. As a grower, you’ve heard it preached many times. Your response might be something like, “Easier said than done.”

The 2012 NSA sunflower field survey results are in and starting to sound like a broken record. Irregular plant spacing within a row has consistently ranked as one of the top first and second limiting factors since the first survey was conducted in 2002.

When field surveyors encounter a double or triple, where two or more plants are close together competing for sunlight and nutrients, the head size is smaller, the stalk is spindly, and none of the plants contribute much toward yield. Doubles and triples can be traced back to the planter. When skips are observed, the cause isn’t always as clear. Did the seed go in the ground as intended and not germinate for some reason? Did the plant emerge fine, only to be eaten by the local wildlife? Was it a victim of disease or some sort of genetic anomaly? There are plenty of reasons, but it makes sense to start at the source: the planter. Taking the necessary measures to achieve optimal plant stand begins with the proper equipment and calibration.

Hans Kandel, NDSU extension agronomist and coordinator of the annual field survey, says, “Irregular plant spacing in the row may have been caused by poor seeding conditions, failure to adjust the planter, driving too fast, poor germination, disease, insect damage or other factors. He notes in the recently released survey results, “The average yield of 28 fields with plant distribution issues was 1,678 lbs/ac, compared with 21 fields with no stand problem or other problems yielding 2,158 lbs/ac. Producers should pay attention to their management and refine their technique while seeding sunflower. Planter calibration may be the first step to reducing skips and get better plant spacing within the row.”

Finding a Solution

There’s no question that planters are remarkable machines, and the technology and engineering involved by all the major companies have come a long way in the past decade. Several companies that manufacture and sell planters have devised technology to fine-tune the process. So why is plant spacing such a difficult task to manage? The simple answer for a complicated issue is: It’s because there are multiple factors contributing. So is there a solution?

Precision Planting has emerged as the industry leader in boosting planter productivity toward a solution to the issue of accurate plant stand. The Illinois-based company offers add-ons and specially tailored equipment for improving planter performance. They also have one of the more-popular test stands used to calibrate planters. It’s about taking it a step further to get all the fine detail and accuracy of which the state-of-the-art planters are capable. If the goal is to start at the source, the first step would be to properly calibrate the equipment.

The company was founded in 1993 by Greg Sauter, an Illinois farmer and self-proclaimed perfectionist looking for ways to enhance the performance of planters. In 2012 the company was purchased by Monsanto.

Acknowledging that it’s difficult to just clean and adjust an old meter up to today’s standards, the company has developed a line of tools to improve three main areas of planting: depth control, singulation and seed environment — all leading up to improved yield. Working around the country are Certified MeterMax representatives who are equipped with meter test stands to evaluate and make adjustments in order to improve performance in the field.

The Zahns of New England

New England, N.D., brothers, Tom and Twig Zahn started operating a MeterMax test stand from Precision Planting in 2008 and have attended extensive training on how to maximize the potential of the company’s products. They are one of just 10 authorized dealers in North Dakota and among the “Premier Dealers” who have completed the most comprehensive training offered on Precision Planting products.

Being the only dealers in the western half of the state, the Zahn test stand gets quite a workout in the “off season,” calibrating meters for farmers from all over the region. They use this diagnostic tool to evaluate the performance of vacuum, air and finger meters. Worn parts? Large seed? Variable seed sizes? Seed coatings? Questions about optimum speed? The MeterMax test stand answers all of these questions. As MeterMax technicians, the Zahns can fine tune the meters to gain 2, 3 or 4% improvement in singulation.

The Zahns also stay busy with their seed business — Homestead Seeds. Tom is a certified crop advisor chosen as the North Dakota Ag Association’s CCA of the Year three years ago. But when they were looking to diversify their business, they learned of Precision Planting and figured it would be an easy transition to help their customers get the most potential out of their investment in seed and planting equipment.

Every fall and winter, the Zahns and a part-time seasonal employee spend countless hours working at the test stand. Each meter goes through standard testing that includes various steps. They clean, replace worn parts and properly balance the meter. Then they place the meter on the stand and add the specific seed sample (either corn or sunflower) that the farmer intends to plant. They set the test stand speed gauge to the planting speed and observe the meter errors using the sensor technology. Based on the readings, they adjust the meter and retest until all errors are eliminated. The adjustments are done with “trial and error” with the goal of 100% singulation with the fewest skips and multiples (or doubles). The farmer is provided with a printout of each meter’s performance on the stand.

During the meter calibration, they are looking to evaluate performance of the vacuum system, air and finger meters, worn parts, seed size and shape, optimum planting speed, etc. The meter can be fine-tuned to get the best singulation possible. Improvement in seed placement accuracy translates to better stand and means increased yield in the end.

The Precision Planting MeterMax Ultra stand will calibrate meters whether they be finger, vac, Precision, John Deere, Kinze, White or CaseIH.

The Zahns say just about every type of planter meter has come through their shop. Based on experience, they know which equipment company dominates the market; but no matter the paint color of the planter, they will work on anything the grower brings to them. “The meter room is non-denominational, so to speak,” Tom notes. “Our goal is to get our customers the best performance out of their planter.”

The Zahns say the greatest improvement that can be made with sunflower planting accuracy and singulation is with older-model finger units converted to Precision Planting equipment.

“There are a lot of good planters out there,” Tom says. “Precision Planting just makes them better. Some guys are happy with 80% singulation. With Precision, we can get it to upwards of 95 to 98% and better. It’s about taking it to the next level and recognizing the added value.”

The cost of calibration services and equipment varies based on the type of meter and services required. Calibration is recommended annually, but will depend on when a farmer changes seed and also wear and tear from season to season.

Beyond calibration, the Zahns also are dealers of all the add-on equipment that the company has to offer the grower. However, they don’t install the equipment. They order the parts the grower desires and supervise the installation. They do this so the farmer understands how each piece of equipment works within the entire system. They offer tech support 24/7 for their customers when issues or questions arise.

In addition to meter testing and calibration, Precision Planting offers a wide-range of equipment for growers to enhance planter performance. The “basic kit” includes the monitor and the eSet® disk, a simple replacement for a current vacuum disk. The package includes the disk, baffle, singulator, brushes and seed extractor. All the components mount to an existing meter housing (1991 or newer). The 20/20 SeedSense® package is a full line of retrofit equipment. The key element begins with a touch-screen monitor with multiple functions reporting row-by-row population, skips, doubles, planting speed, down force, ground contact and more. A grower can also zero in on one particular row and identify specific problems.

There’s also the 20/20 AirForce™ which monitors down force, allowing for adjustments depending on soil conditions. The 20/20 RowFlow™ monitors and adjusts variable rate and swath control, saving valuable seed. Another feature, WaveVision™, uses high-frequency waves to count every seed falling through the tube to distinguish between a single seed from a double or triple, or from dust or debris. There is also additional equipment available to ensure uniform germination and deal with residue removal, as well as Precision meters and fingers to optimize singulation.

Southwestern North Dakota farmer Reggie Pahl has used the Precision Planting equipment since 2006 and won’t plant his sunflower or corn acres without it. In fact, he and his neighbors were so impressed with the technology that he became an authorized dealer for some time before giving that up recently due to time constraints as well as farm and business commitments.

“I’m no longer a dealer, but I will never stop using it,” Pahl observes. “Sunflower is no different than corn. If you figure out how to plant them right, it will enhance your yield more than you realize.”

One of the newer features that impressed Pahl most is the RowFlow swath control making every seed count. “It’s set up to start and stop within 15 inches of an area that has already been planted. The accuracy is amazing; and when I figure up the bags of expensive seed I’ve saved by not planting the same ground twice — even a few rows here and there — I wouldn’t plant without it.”

The Zahns estimate that a Precision Planting “basic kit” that includes the eSet disks, new seed tubes and the 20/20 Seed Sense monitor and all the hardware that goes with it would cost a grower approximately $9,000 for a 24-row box planter. The cost can vary depending on the type of planter and equipment required for a conversion.

While the technology isn’t cheap, growers who use it say it’s well worth the investment. Tom Zahn offers the analogy of a cook in the kitchen who values good tools. “Not every cook sees the value of a $70 knife in the kitchen, and some are just satisfied with the everyday knives,” he says. “But when it comes to planters, some guys see the value and take it to the next level — and they will see the difference it makes in their yield, no question.”

— Sonia Mullally
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