All Set to Head to the Field for a Fresh Start

At this point in the winter, spring can’t come fast enough. Longer days, warmer temperatures and hints of green will be here before you know it. Don’t waste time that could be spent prioritizing and planning for what’s to come and prepping your planter. In tight margins, using your time, resources and inputs wisely is even more important. 

Tune Your Planter for a Perfect Stand

From the comfort of your shop, use these tips from Farm Journal Associate Field Agronomist Missy Bauer to prep your planter for the field:

  • To inspect the transmission system, hook a small motor to the main driveshaft and spin the planter. With the planter boxes off, run the planter and look for frozen links or problems with idlers or rollers. 
To check bearings, place the tip of a long screwdriver on the housing and hold the other end to your ear. Bearings that are beginning to fail sound gravelly.

To inspect the seed meter drive system, spin the system with the boxes in place but unlatched. When the system is running, feel each box for vibration.

Whether you run a finger or vacuum meter, calibrate using the shape and size of seed you will plant.

  • To center row units, use a tape measure to mark a known point on the main toolbar out from the row unit. Measure each side. If they aren’t close, you have a twist. You might be able to bend the units back straight; if not, replace the main part of the unit.
To check parallel linkage, grasp the rear of the row unit and try to jerk it up and down. If there’s slop or play, first try to tighten the bolts and see if that corrects it. If not, take out the bolts and examine the threads. If worn, replace the bolts and bushings.

  • A no-till coulter should run at least ¼" above the bottom of the double-disk openers. To set coulters, raise the hitch high enough to level the main toolbar. Stick a second level under the double-disk openers and measure the distance between the top of the level and the bottom of the no-till coulter. If you don’t have at least ¼", raise your no-till coulter. If the no-till coulter is as high as it will go but still not high enough, loosen the bottom two bolts and insert washers.
  • To check gauge wheels, push them into the up position and pull out on them. See if there’s any space between the disk opener and the gauge wheel, to the point that when you drop the gauge wheel you can hear and feel it rub against the disk opener. 

Jerk on the gauge wheel to see if there’s play in the shaft. If you can’t tighten the shafts, buy rebuild kits.

  • On most planters, new disk openers are 15" in diameter and should be replaced when they measure 14½". Case IH planters are the exception: New disk openers are 14" and should be replaced at 13½".
To check the point of contact of the double-disk openers, insert two business cards—one from the top and one from the bottom. Push them toward each other until they won’t slide any farther. Measure the distance between the cards. Check with your manufacturer for the proper point of contact—it can vary from 1" to 2½". Take this measurement four times. If you can’t achieve the proper point of contact by moving shims, the blades are warped or worn too small.

  • Make sure seed tubes aren’t cracked, bent or worn. If you replace the seed tube, replace the guard. 
  • To align closing wheels, set your planter on concrete and drive forward. The scratch line from the double-disk openers should be centered between the closing wheels. 
Hope for the Best But Plan for Anything

Mother Nature tends to throw a wrench in even the best laid plans. How will you be able to adjust and roll with the punches? asks Mark Licht, Iowa State University Extension cropping systems agronomist. “Think through and be ready to make decisions,” he says.

Rain and other delays might mean weeds have more time to establish, affecting herbicide timing and placement. If that’s the case, consider a burndown or a more aggressive pre-emergent herbicide.

Based on how much, if any, nitrogen was applied in the fall and the weather forecast for the spring, decide when it’s best to apply nitrogen, Licht says. If the forecast calls for a lot of rain early, it’s probably best to split apply and avoid excess leaching. “Look at it from economic and usability perspectives,” he says.

You’ve likely purchased seed by now, so it’s time to finalize in what order and where you want to plant certain hybrids and varieties. Consider factors such as how the product performs in wet soils, dry soils, different soil types and fertility levels to decide where the seed fits best. Remember, weather and other delays mean you need to remain flexible until the last seed is in the ground.

Establish your priorities and what you’re willing to sacrifice in a crunch. Is planting date your No. 1 priority? Reducing weed pressure? Applying necessary nutrients, even if it pushes back planting date? You need to have a plan A, plan B, etc., to help you remain focused on the bigger picture and avoid an emotional decision, Licht says.

Schedule Fields Based on Productivity, Soil Conditions and End Results

It can be challenging to determine what fields you should plant first—it’s not as cut and dry as harvest.

  • Your most productive fields should be the priority as soon as they’re ready to plant, Licht says. Consider field history. If you deal with a disease such as sudden death syndrome in soybeans it might be beneficial to wait on those fields. If time is a factor, the more productive fields with less risk should move to the front of the line.
  • The two biggest mistakes farmers make involve soil, says Jeff Coulter, Minnesota Extension agronomist. If conditions are wet and the soil temperature is still below 50°F, it’s a good idea to move those fields down on the priority list.
  • If the grain from a field is used for a specific purpose, such as livestock feed, it might be important to prioritize that field to ensure the supply is available when needed, Licht says.
  • Think ahead to harvest and drying capacity. If you have fields that are habitually wetter no matter how early you plant them, you might push them back since other fields could save you time and money in drying costs, Licht says.
Planter Emergency Kits Could Save the Day

Remember last year, when you had to drive all the way to town to get a special cotter key for the planter—that cotter key that couples the planter’s transmission to the drill shaft that drives the seed units? (OK, so maybe you didn’t drive to town. You used an 8-penny nail you found in the bottom of the tractor’s toolbox, but you get the drift.)

Different planters have different “wear items,” but there are a few universal parts and tools that are useful to take to the field when planting. For example:

  • A cotter key assortment. If you plan in advance, add to that assortment multiples of the most common cotter keys used to connect assorted driveshafts and transmission shafts on the planter.
  • An assortment of hardened roll pins. Same strategy as cotter keys.
  • A roll of mechanic’s wire. Also known as baling wire, it comes in handy to run through/around roll pins or cotter keys when they don’t fit tight in their egged-out holes and keep falling out.
  • A hammer and a couple of punches. Long thin punches are nice to drive out the remnants of pins/cotter keys when they shear off inside driveshafts.
  • A couple of Crescent-style adjustable wrenches to turn hex driveshafts for alignment or other needs.
  • A seed tube brush or some device to clean seed tubes and seed tube sensors.
  • Contact cleaner or other spray cleaner to flush dirt, grease and generic gunk from electrical connectors to improve electrical flow.
  • WD-40, JB-80 or other spray lubricant to aid repairs requiring sliding a driveshaft in or out of a bearing, seed drive transmission or coupler.
  • A small tube or tub of waterless hand cleaner, preferably without pumice or grit. If you have an air planter and have to replace/install a new hose over a barbed fitting, waterless soap is a great lubricant. WD-40, JB-80 and other petroleum-based lubricants might attack the plastic or rubber of hoses, so avoid them when lubing hoses and hose barbs. Hand soap is nice to have handy after changing a wheel bearing.
  • The planter’s owner’s manual. If nothing else, copy the pages pertinent to transmission gear settings, speeds and air pressure/vacuum settings. It’s a good idea to laminate the pages so they’re water and greasy-finger resistant. 
The Weed Control Battle Starts Now

Whether it’s a footrace or a growing crop, if given a head start you’ll likely beat out the competition. When you let weeds get a jump on your crop you’re giving them a distinct advantage. Study your field dynamics to determine if burndown is necessary or if pre-emergent herbicide alone will suffice.

First, know when it’s best to use burndown herbicides versus pre-emergent herbicides. Burndown is used to control weeds that have already emerged, says Curtis Thompson, Kansas State University professor and Extension weed science specialist. Pre-emergent should have residual control to stop new weeds from coming out of the ground.

While burndown might only be necessary in no-till and special situations, you always need a pre-emergent herbicide. Post-only programs make it difficult to control weeds, especially in wet seasons since it’s harder to get into fields and easy to get behind. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a pre product,” Thompson adds. “Two-pass systems are the most effective and it doesn’t have to be the most expensive pre-emergent.”

Think about what problem weeds plagued your fields in 2015, especially at harvest, says Mike Owen, Iowa State Extension weed scientist. Select herbicides that will be effective against those weeds while considering any resistance issues. 

Use multiple effective modes of action against common weeds in your fields. “Make sure you have a minimum of two,” Owen says. “Remember in some weeds, such as waterhemp, multiple resistances are the norm.”

Understand herbicide residual properties, how they’re activated and if they will be viable when weeds germinate. “We look for products that vary in the amount of residual,” Thompson says. “We want some that need just a little rain and some that do well with more.” Also make sure you have a good understanding of how long the pre-emergent residual lasts into the growing season and if it will be able to control target weeds when they germinate.

While planning your pre-emergent herbicide, start thinking about what you’ll use in a post application, Thompson says. It’s important to make sure you can get an effective mix of products so you don’t use the same mixes over and over again.

Corn and soybeans need to focus their energy on growing. Don’t give weeds a head start.



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