By Sjoerd Duiker, Soil Scientist

No-till planting is now the predominant practice in Pennsylvania, representing more than 65% of planted acres. Many problems with no-till can often be traced back to poor planter performance. 

It is all too common to see irregular seed depth, seeds at the soil surface, open seed slots, compacted soil on top of the seeds, hairpinning, sidewall compaction, and doubles and triples. 

To avoid planting problems first check that your equipment is working properly, and then regularly check planter performance in the field:

1. Meters 

Metering units have to work well or you’ll get frequent skips, doubles and triples. To guarantee optimal performance, take metering units apart every year. Remove dirt and clean the hood with soapy water (no kerosene, diesel or oil should ever be used in metering units!). Replace cracked plastic covers. Replace broken fingers in a finger-pickup meter. 

Seed brushes need to be replaced when worn. If a groove has formed in the chromium house of the metering unit, it is time to replace it. 

The belt (in finger pick-up meters) should be flexible, not have cracks in it, and should be clean. Clean with soapy water and let it dry before putting it back in. 

When putting the metering unit back together, the rubber belt should be placed in the right direction, or your meter will malfunction. You can lubricate with graphite (NO OIL or WD-40). It is recommended to take your finger pick-up metering unit to a dealer to have it calibrated every year or every 300-400 acres. Take a bag of your own seed with you, and give the correct speed at which you’ll be driving. 

If you have a vacuum or air meter, check for leaks and appropriate vacuum or air pressure.

2. Planter Unit

Accurate depth placement can be compromised if planter units are loose or wobbly. You should not be able to easily lift up your unit or move it sideways. Look across your planter units from the side. Are they all at the same height? If one unit is either up or down compared to the others, it needs work. A common problem is that some bolts are loose or additional bushings are needed. You also need to replace cracked or broken seed hoppers.

3. Seed Opener Disks

Seed opener disks need to have a minimum diameter (check operator manual) or they will not place the seed at the appropriate depth. Seed opener disks also need to come together in the front (they should usually touch for 3 inches but this may vary depending on planter). Stick two business cards between the openers and move them as close together as possible to check this. If opener disks are worn too much you will get a “W” shaped seed slot instead of the desired “V” slot.

4. Seed Tubes

The end of seed tubes may wear to the extent that they curl inwards, catching seeds. There is often a hook halfway up that can easily break off. Seed-tube guards need to have their minimum width and be fastened correctly or damage to the seed tube is likely.

5. Seed Firmers

These help to press the seed down in the furrow, guaranteeing more accurate depth placement of the seeds. The tension can be adjusted with a bolt. If the seed firmers are worn too much they need to be replaced.

6. Depth Wheels 

Depth wheels should run tight against disks. Change washers from in- to outside (or vice versa) of depth wheel if necessary. If this doesn’t resolve the problem, the depth wheel arm needs to be replaced.

7. Coulters

Check the diameter of the coulters, and replace them if needed. You should adjust the depth of worn coulters that are still usable.

8. Row Cleaners 

Check for wear. Adjust to compensate for wear or replace if worn too much.

9. Closing Wheels

Closing wheels need to have an intact spring, and need to be checked for damage or wear. Bearings cannot be wobbly or too tight. The bottoms of rubber or cast-iron closing wheels need to be 1.5-2 inches apart. The closing wheel arm cannot have too much play. If so, bushings or the entire arm may need replaced.

10. Alignment of Coulters, Opener Disks and Closing Wheels 

Take a rope and pull it straight from the front coulter to the closing wheels. The firming wheels, seed openers and coulters should all be in line. Closing wheels should not run on top of the seed furrow.

11. Insecticide Boxes

The insecticide boxes should have no holes or cracks. Tubes should be blown out with air as well as the slot on bottom of meter.

12. Fertilizer Unit 

Fertilizer opener disks should have a minimum diameter (check manual). The bearings should not be wobbly or too tight. Hang a bucket below the tube of the unit, and do a test run of 175 feet in the field. Weigh the fertilizer in the bucket, multiply by 100 and you have the fertilizer you’ll put on in pounds per acre (at 30-inch row spacing). Adjust as needed.

13. Chains and Sprockets 

Check all chains and their sprockets. If they are worn too much they need to be replaced. They need to have the appropriate tension and should be greased regularly.

14. Soil Moisture Conditions 

Grab a handful of soil, knead it in your hand. If you can easily make a ball, soil is too wet for planting. This can lead to sidewall compaction which limits early root development.

15. Seed Depth Placement 

Make sure the seeds are planted at the right depth — 1.5-2.5 inches for corn, 1-1.25 inches for soybeans. If seed depth is too shallow, you may need to adjust depth settings on depth control wheels, down-pressure springs may not be heavy enough, or you may not have enough weight on the planter.

16. Hairpinning 

Make sure seeds are placed in good contact with soil and not on top of crop or cover crop residue that’s pushed into the soil. If you see a lot of hairpinning, you may need to wait until residue is dry and crisp, increase aggressiveness of row cleaners or check double disk openers to see if they are properly working.

17. Seed Slot Closure 

If the seed slot remains open, you may be planting in soil conditions that are too — so it might be advisable to wait until soil dries out a bit. Changing closing wheels from steel or rubber to spoked, fingered, indented or posi-close closing wheels may be called for if it is not possible to wait. You may also need to adjust down pressure on closing wheels, but watch out that you don’t compact the soil too much on top of the seed.