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Tips To Maximize Planting Efficiency

Technology And Hands-On Efforts Work Together

By Carroll Smith

An impressive lineup of cotton varieties is available for the 2018 growing season, and farmers have been busy deciding which ones to plant on their farms. Although phenomenal yields and good quality have been coming out of the field recently, cottonseed is not a cheap input.

Because seed is a significant investment, it’s important to pay close attention to detail at planting time to maximize efficiency and get a good stand. And although advancements in planter technology are making a positive difference, cotton farmers are still encouraged to keep a hands-on approach to ensure everything is working correctly.

Automatic Section Control
A popular precision ag technology being adopted to help with seed cost is automatic section control. Some retrofit kits are available for older model planters, but many cotton farmers are buying new planters that come with ASC already on them. According to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, this technology turns planter sections or rows OFF in areas that have been previously planted or ON and OFF at headland turns, point rows, terraces and/or waterways.

Mike Buschermohle, whose focus is precision agriculture at the University of Tennessee AgResearch, says some of the work done in the state in highly irregular-shaped fields showed a savings in seed of 15 to 17 percent. In a study of about 52 different field shapes and sizes, the average savings in seed was about 5 percent. The savings really depends on the field shape, he says. If you have a square field, the savings will be less.

“However, larger producers with small, irregular-shaped fields like we have in Tennessee typically can pay for the technology pretty quickly with 5 percent of the cost of seed,” Buschermohle says. “Another consideration when using ASC is to make sure you have a highly accurate GPS system. Since many farmers also are running auto guidance, ASC is a fit with the whole system.”

The primary tangible benefit of using ASC on planters is the seed savings through reduction of double- and triple-planted areas of the field, according to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. In addition, here are several other benefits noted by Alabama Extension:

  • Improved overall planter efficiency.
  • Improved environmental stewardship.
  • Increased operator visibility during harvest (able to see rows clearly) leading to increased field efficiency, especially at night.
  • Reduced operator fatigue by not having to manually turn the planter ON or OFF over a full day.
  • As-planted maps for field documentation, record keeping, and use in farm management information systems or other ag data management services.

Down Force And Depth
Another way to maximize planter efficiency is to pay attention to planter down force and depth, which are extremely critical when planting cotton.

“The research we’ve done here at the University of Georgia has shown planter down force and depth are closely tied to soil moisture and soil texture,” says Wes Porter, UGA precision ag specialist. “As you move into a wetter soil type, less down force is needed to meet the depth the planter is trying to achieve. If you are in a drier, harder soil type, more down force is needed to achieve that same depth. It’s critical to plant cottonseed at the optimal depth — especially smaller-seeded cotton — to maximize emergence.”

Porter says farmers can adjust down force and depth themselves individually per row unit. Depending on the type of planter, there are three options for adjusting the down force.

  1. Manually adjust the down pressure springs at the very front of the row unit.
  2. On a more advanced planter, adjust the pneumatic air bag with a valve typically located in the cab of the tractor.
  3. In a very advanced planter with hydraulic cylinders, adjust the down force electronically from a controller in the tractor cab.

“Down force needs to be adjusted from field to field and from moisture content to moisture content,” Porter says. “For example, let’s assume you are planting today and have to stop because rain moves in. But it’s not so much rain that you have to stay out of the field tomorrow. You can still go back and plant, but the field is going to be a little wet tomorrow.

“You want to make sure you don’t have as much down force as you were using when you were planting into the drier, harder soil type. Some compaction and potentially crusting issues can occur if you are using too much down force in the wet soil.”

Porter emphasizes that down force must be adjusted more than just at the beginning of the season. Check on it while you are planting just like you would check seed depth from field to field. Also make sure your gauge wheels are running properly.

“And if you’ve been planting another crop and are moving into cotton, be sure to set a new depth for cotton specifically,” he says. “Down force allows us to do that. It pushes on the row unit to make sure the opening discs cut into the soil far enough to create a seed trench deep enough to put the seed.

“Without the right amount of down force, it won’t be deep enough, and with too much, we potentially could push it too deep or cause compaction issues. Both of these scenarios have the potential to cause emergence issues.”

Larger producers with small, irregular-shaped fields like we have in Tennessee typically can pay for the technology pretty quickly with 5 percent of the cost of seed.”

Manually Check Seed Depth
Planter technology has streamlined the cotton planting process quite a bit, but it’s still a good idea to climb down from the planter, walk behind it, dig up some seed and make sure you are putting it at the right depth, Buschermohle says.

“When you start planting early in the morning, the ground may be a little wet,” he says. “Later on, the ground dries out. I always encourage farmers to check the seed depth several times during the day, especially if you change fields and are in a different soil type.

“It’s critical for emergence to plant at the right depth. And when you consider the cost of seed, it’s time well spent.”

Porter agrees 100 percent.

“Any time you change fields or planting conditions, check to make sure everything is working properly and the seed is at the right depth,” he says. “We’ve collected data over the past couple of years that shows severe yield penalties for lack of stand establishment in that cotton crop. I strongly suggest getting off the tractor to check seed depth.”

Cotton planting season is just around the corner. Before hitting the field, go over your planter thoroughly and make sure everything is greased up. Overall good maintenance in the beginning will keep your planter running smoothly throughout the season.