Pictured Above: GROUND ENGAGEMENT. The business end of Tom Cannon’s John Deere 1770 NT drills features hydraulic down force, sharp discs, Long Life gauge wheels, heavy-duty seed tube protectors, Keeton seed firmers with Mojo wires, and a follow-up by starred Thompson closing wheels. The combination helps in the Oklahoma farmer’s “plant green, harvest green” techniques.

When avid hunter and outdoorsman Tom Cannon was in his mid-20s, he experimented with no-till and interseeded food plots to attract white-tailed deer and other game on his family’s ranch near the small town of Newkirk in north-central Oklahoma.

What he learned about cover crops, seed placement and interseeding from those experiences is evident on today’s Goodson Ranch, a nearly-10,000-acre family farming and cattle operation with land on both sides of the Arkansas River just south of the Kansas state line. 

Labor for the operation is primarily Cannon and his wife, Laurie, and children Jacob, Reagan, Reese and Rachel. While Jacob handles most of the harvesting and Reagan and Reese run the planter and drill — sometimes around the clock for several days at a time — the farm also employs other hands for additional field work. Rachel stays on the road making deliveries and parts runs.

Constant Cover

The farm involves roughly 6,000 acres a year of corn, winter wheat, cotton, milo, double-crop soybeans, and cover crops for seed and grazing. The land lies at the southern edge of the Flint Hills prairie and sees an average of 32 inches of rainfall per year, along with extremely hot — and many times very dry — summers.

“The remainder of the operation is in grass, but in any given year we’ll also have our cattle on up to two-thirds of our cropland grazing cover crops,” he explains. “We try to plant every acre into a cover crop, every year.”

The Goodson Ranch, which has been producing beef for more than a century, has been 100% no-till for more than 20 years and Cannon says today he seeks to plant and harvest all his crops “green.” He has some of his cover crop mixes aerially applied, and says “Regardless of how we plant our covers, we try to get them seeded while the previous crop is in the last 25% of its growing season. 

“Even as we’re harvesting, we’ll typically have the drill running at the same time,” Cannon explains. “We want a green, growing crop out there at all times because green, growing roots add so much to the soil structure and its ability to withstand machinery and animal traffic.”

He also says the year-round green management has eliminated rutting in fields as the soil’s ability to infiltrate water has improved.

“Roots are really the foundation of our system,” he says. “What’s going on below the soil level is the foundation of everything we do.”

As summer crops are binned, the Cannons will be planting roughly 20% of their cropland in winter wheat and the rest in covers comprised of a 6-way blend of rye, black oats, clover, vetch, buckwheat, peas and sometimes additional barley. 

“Every acre of wheat we plant will also include the 6-way cover mix, and we’ll harvest the wheat over the top in June,” Cannon explains. “I’ve been picking covers for grazing for more than 25 years, so it was easy to work with Green Cover Seed and their seed mix calculator. Indigo Ag also has a very good diagnostic program to match covers with the needs of specific operations.”

DOUBLE CROP COTTON. Precision planted cotton in wheat straw harvested with a stripper header gave Tom Cannon impressive yields despite a weather-delayed harvest in January this year. Despite the heavy residue, RTK guidance and good seed placement were evident in the cotton stand.

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Summer production will see 40-50% of the farm in soybeans, 10% in cover crops for grazing, 20-30% in cotton and the remainder in corn and milo. The summer cover mix includes sorghum forage, dwarf and full-size sorghum-sudan, millet, sunflowers, sunnhemp, cowpeas, okra and buckwheat.

“Our rotations are dependent upon many things,” Cannon explains. “First, I consider the needs of the soil such as the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, organic matter levels and fertility needs. We also take into account what covers have been on the soil and what is growing there currently. Then we determine what we need for our livestock, and lastly we look at the markets. It’s all very important and we try to be thinking at least a year ahead of ourselves at all times.

“Of course our success ultimately depends on the weather, and we acknowledge God is ultimately in control of that and everything else we do,” he adds.

Planting chores are shared by the operation’s 42-foot-wide John Deere 1890 air seeder set on 10-inch spacings, and a 60-foot, 24-row John Deere 1770 NT drill set for 30-inch rows.

“We try to plant every acre into a cover crop, every year…” – Tom Cannon

“Typically, I use the drill for everything but corn and cotton, and sometimes soybeans,” Cannon explains. “I used to be totally committed to the planter for beans, but the modifications we’ve done to the drill have allowed me improve stands and crop uniformity even with much lower seeding rates.

“We generally plant beans at 70,000 seeds per acre, and rarely go over 90,000 even with the drill, so what I save on seed helps keep my cost-per-acre down and that keeps me competitive even in today’s market.”

Cannon credits his success with planting green and successful no-till rotations to proper seed placement and planting techniques. That’s why he’s equipped his planting equipment with aftermarket discs, long-life gauge wheels, seed tube protectors, Keeton seed firmers along with Mojo wires for better in-furrow seed settling, and Thompson closing wheels.

But he also looks to nature for planting inspiration.

Learn From the Buffalo

“Years ago when I was new to all this, I sat in a no-till conference led by Dwayne Beck from South Dakota,” Cannon explains. “He impressed me with his story comparing proper seed placement and planting to what he called the ‘Buffalo System.’

“Dwayne said the perfect way to plant a seed is the way the buffalo did it as they reseeded the Great Plains for eons with their migrations. As they grazed, they pushed seeds into the ground to moisture with their hooves. Then, as they moved on, their back feet further firmed the seed in the ground and dragged loose soil and debris on top of it.  

“It’s very simple. It’s what we should try to do with our planters,” Cannon explains. “We want our planting equipment to cut a clean V-shaped trench into the soil, place a seed firmly in the bottom of the “V” — firmly enough so that one might need a fingernail or knife blade to dig it out — and then cover the “V” with loose soil on top.”

Cannon admits a personal preference for John Deere equipment, but says he’s seen the addition of aftermarket parts improve stand and crop performance on a wide range of models.

5 Tips for Fine-Tuning Seed Placement

1. Eyeballs in the Field

Take time to watch your planters in action. Watch residue as it flows through. Check to make sure the planter has good ground-engaging contact with the soil. Use plenty of down pressure. 

“After using the 4-wheeler to observe our planting operations, I’m now using double the amount of down pressure I once used,” Cannon explains. “I think my long suit in all this is spending time observing my planting in the field.”

Cannon says an interesting opportunity (and substitute for 4-wheeler rides) involves using a high-strength magnet like that found on a “Steelie Clip” to attach a Smart phone to various parts of a planter for on-board videos of the machine in action — a technique his daughter Reagan developed.

“There are two models of the Steelie Clip,” Cannon explains. “One is much stronger that the other and the weaker one won’t hold the phone dependably. With the stronger one you’ll have to pry the phone off the implement.”

2. Harvest is First Planting Step

Realize what you do at harvest is actually the first step in your planting operation. Even residue distribution is key to uniform planting results. 

“It’s very important to me to have even residue distribution, because I can’t do my job later if it’s not. Because of that, I’ve come to prefer spreaders over choppers completely,” Cannon emphasizes. “Make sure your spreader is set right to spread residue evenly across the field. If it’s bunched up in some areas and not in others, you will see planting inefficiencies that will cost you yield.”

Cannon uses a Shelborne stripper header for his small grain crop because of the clean, standing residue it leaves. He says because residue breaks down quickly in Oklahoma’s hot, and many times humid, summer weather, the upright straw lasts longer and isn’t a problem running through the combine.

3. Replace Worn Parts Immediately — or Sooner

As big and bulky as our modern equipment is, today’s planters are true marvels of precision and worn parts will interfere with performance. 

“The discs on these planters and drills we use run on very specific angles,” Cannon says. “Many times if you have worn bushings you’ll have trouble keeping them running at the desired angle.

“Any time you have worn parts, investigate why they are worn, and if you can replace them with something more robust. Don’t be afraid to ask a mentor or someone familiar with the choices available.

“Also, keep discs sharp and replace them before they wear out beyond design tolerances.”

4. Plant Deep Enough

It may seem counterintuitive to plant deeply, as that could mean the seedlings have to do more work to break through the soil surface. But that’s where the moisture is, says Cannon, and seeds need moisture to germinate.

“Because of our extremely hot, dry summers I was having problems at times with fields drying out very quickly,” Cannon explains. “Paul Jasa of the University of Nebraska convinced me I wasn’t planting deep enough.

“I was skeptical of planting more than 2 inches deep for milo or soybeans, but he convinced me to try it and it worked,” he says. “I’ve had several stand failures in the past because the soil dried out quickly, but since I started planting deeper I’ve never had a stand problem from planting too deep. Now I figure how deeply I would normally want to plant, and go a quarter inch deeper. It’s worked well for me.”

5. Keep it Simple

Cannon says to remember the simplicity of the “Buffalo System” and tailor planting equipment and techniques to good seed-to-soil contact, and proper protection of the seed in the trench.

“If you can do all those things, I don’t care if you do it with a herd of buffalo or a half-million-dollar planter, realize it’s what you have to do to succeed in high-residue planting operations.”

“Regardless of what brand you prefer, as parts wear out there are a lot of things you can do to tweak performance. I highly recommend you investigate parts like gauge wheels, seed tube protectors, seed firmers and closing wheels. 

Watch the Planting

Cannon spends much time watching his planting equipment at work, even riding alongside on a 4-wheeler while his daughter Rachel videotaped the process. 

“You can learn a lot with your eyeballs and a camera,” he explains. “By doing this we watched the performance and ‘bounce’ of a drill rank with spring down force compared with one on the same machine using a UniForce hydraulic system and compared yield performance,” Cannon explains, adding that the planter with the hydraulic system had visibly less bounce as it went through the field, providing a more consistent planting depth. 

“Comparing the two systems after harvest, the soybean yield difference on harder ground (where I ran cattle on rye before planting) was 2.3 bushels per acre. On soils that had no livestock traffic (and less short-term compaction) over the previous season, the difference was 2 bushels per acre. The differences were small but significant. We also saw better stands where we crossed terraces and depressions because of more consistent planting depths.”

Cannon says many growers face reduced yields because of inadequate drill weight and weight distribution. In harder soil conditions, without sufficient weight, planting components can bounce, causing wide variations in planting depth and thus erratic stand performance.

“In the case of drills, none are perfect,” Cannon says. “Many are too light and some have poor weight distribution, both of which will cause less than optimum planting performance.

“We replace our discs twice a year on everything we have to make sure when we open the ground the seed has a nearly-perfect environment in which to land…” – Tom Cannon

“Weight problems will cause similar hit-and-miss results as running dull discs that won’t penetrate the surface, or trying to plant in a field that is too dry and hard,” he explains. “The dry planting conditions may be more of a problem here in the Southern Plains than further north and east, but the results of inadequate drill weight or balance issues will look the same.”

Cannon recommends finding ways to add ballast to drills that lack the iron to penetrate the soil uniformly.

“If you’re having problems with weight issues, mount a bracket on the drill so you can add extra weight where you need it to tune the machine for uniform planting in a variety of soil conditions.”

Cannon also says a common error is allowing the planter to run nose up or nose-down, which can significantly change angles of ground-engaging components far out of design specifications for uniform planting. 

“I try to run drills level front-to-back, and never more than 3 degrees nose-down from level,” he says. “More angle than that raises the back portion of the row unit enough to reduce the its effectiveness in ensuring good seed to soil contact.

SEEDING BASICS. Tom Cannon recommends following the steps in this simple diagram to achieve optimum seed placement for more uniform stand emergence. 1) Cut residue and soil to create the furrow at the proper depth. 2) Place the seeds consistently into the bottom of the furrow. 3) Firm the seeds by applying the right amount of pressure exactly where it’s needed. 4) Close the furrow by chopping the sidewall to prevent drying and allow good root exploration. (Diagram Courtesy of Exapta Solutions)

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“Also, after watching my equipment in action I’m a big fan of Thompson closing wheels. The stock cast wheels tend to bounce a lot more than the thinner, starred-design aftermarket wheels,” he says. “The bounce reduction means much better sidewall integrity and trench closing, better moisture retention around the seed, and overall uniformity of the planting process.” 

Cannon says side-by-side comparisons over a season on his farm showed that the aftermarket wheels he was using contributed significantly to better stands.

After examining seed placement behind his air drill, Cannon says he’s become a proponent of bleeding off seed air with diffusers — particularly those that vent air at the top of the dispersion head.

“By venting the air there, you let the seed gravity flow down and it enters the bottom of the “V” trench more slowly and is less likely to bounce out of place,” he explains. “There are several things you can do to combat this, but air diffusion is number one.”

Another practice Cannon uses to ensure good seed placement in his high-residue environment is timely replacement of discs on his drills.

“We replace our discs twice a year on everything we have to make sure when we open the ground the seed has a nearly-perfect environment in which to land,” he explains. “It may sound expensive, but at the cost of seed and today’s commodity prices you can make a case for keeping your discs sharp.”

Cannon also cites the use of tough aftermarket seed tube protectors located between the opening discs.

“They’re there for specific reasons, and it’s not only to protect the seed tube,” he says. “It’s a vital part to keep your seed discs at the right distance apart, so you’ll have a good clean “V” in the bottom of the trench. 

“If you don’t have a seed tube protector, the blades will flex inward and will allow dry dirt to slip between your gauge wheel and the disc, and go right into the trench before the seed firmers can pack the bottom,” he explains.

Cannon says he gets 3-4 times the life from heavy-duty seed tube protectors than what he witnessed with OEM equipment.