Kevin Kimberly has compelling numbers that show not only how far the science of efficient planting has come, but how quickly things can fall apart for no-tillers.
On a planter traveling at 6.5 mph, programmed for a 35,000 seed population per acre, each row unit is traveling 9.5 feet per second and planting about 19 seeds a second. By contrast, a Thompson machine gun shoots only 18 bullets a second.
If a seed is delayed by 1/25th of a second, it will drop 3.8 inches late. That tiny delay could start a chain of problems that robs no-tillers of yields and profits.
Kimberley, an ag consultant based in Maxwell, Iowa, works with many no-tillers to improve the performance of their no-till planters.
During a presentation at the 2010 National No-Tillage Conference (NNTC), he reviewed the necessities and roles of planter attachments in gaining picket-fence stands.
He also discussed the importance of hybrid selection and trouble-shooting basic planting challenges.
“Every year is different, so you have to react differently,” Kimberley says.
Soils Change Everything
Kimberley says no-tillers must do a better job of understanding different soil types on their farms because it affects how every aspect of their planter performs.
“As the planter goes through the field, the soil changes. And so the downpressure changes, the planting depth changes, and the presswheel downpressure will change,” he says.
No-tillers have glossed over this issue in recent years, he says, because rainy weather produced more forgiving ground that covered up mistakes.
Soil types also play a crucial role in the type of corn hybrid no-tillers choose.
“Some hybrids like good, black soil and others don’t yield as well in those soils — but they might still be better than the racehorse hybrids,” he says. “They may not give you 200 bushels, but you’ll get 176 or 185, instead of 145 or 150 bushels.”
Tackle Uneven Emergence
During his travels in the Corn Belt, Kimberley says the biggest robber of yields he’s seen is uneven emergence.
“The plants that had good seed-to-soil contact would come up earlier. But with those that didn’t have good contact, the sprout grew lengthwise and came up later. And once you shade that plant out, it becomes a weed in the fall,” he says.
There are many contributing factors to uneven emergence. The trashwheels on the planter may not be set wide enough, which means the gauge wheels are running on the trash and not contacting the ground.
Downpressure may also be inadequate, sacrificing seed-to-soil contact. He believes it’s a result of industry obsession about preventing sidewall compaction.
Kimberley says no-tillers should avoid focusing too much on monitors in the tractor cab and get out and dig down in the seed trench.
“There’s not enough people teaching these things. We’re taught today to go buy new things to fix a problem rather than learning the basics,” he says.
Space It Correctly. Another yield-robbing problem Kimberley identified is plant spacing. There’s less margin for error with today’s high planting speeds and tough residue.
Kimberley mentioned a study by Purdue University agronomist Bob Nielsen that covered 350 cornfields. He found plant spacing variability ranging from 2 to 8.5 inches. He estimated a 2.5-bushel-per-acre loss for every inch in standard deviation.
The best fields were losing 5 bushels per acre, and the worst 21 bushels per acre. About 84% of the fields could have improved yields by 5 bushels or more.
“We have the tools to space corn properly today,” he says. “It scares us how much corn we would harvest if we got half of what we’re leaving out there.”
Think About Trashwheels
Trashwheels are becoming more important as no-tillers attempt to plant across fields covered with tough Bt cornstalk residue.
But after spending 15 years testing out the devices during research on his farm, Kimberley warns there isn’t a trashwheel for everybody.
No-tillers need to be especially careful now as farm shows get bigger and bigger and manufacturers get more aggressive about selling planter attachments that promise a quick answer, Kimberley says.
“Everything is a marriage to the planter, so everything you do must be to make it work better,” Kimberley says. “Be careful and digest the information.”
Kimberley believes adjustable, floating row cleaners are the best option today for no-tillers because they follow undulations in the ground, rather than bouncing and gouging the soil during planting.
Kimberley advises no-tillers to run trashwheels wider than in the past to move residue further from the planter. This keeps the seed trench black and warm and makes row-unit depth control more accurate.
“Nielsen told me about nine new corn diseases out there where roots are growing in trash,” Kimberley says. “Every bad corn plant they found was on top of trash.”