Kale Monroe, of Castalia, IA, has seen a lot of acres come and go in more than 20 years of custom farming for his neighbors.
With seasonal help from his father, Lloyd, and others, Monroe runs his custom fleet of six tractors, three planters, three balers and two combines over about 7,500 acres of Iowa cropland every year.
A good portion of the land is hay, but 2,500 acres are row crops, where he often plants and harvests corn and soybeans for the same farmer-customers.
"When you harvest on this many farms, each with different hybrids, different seed sizes and different field conditions, you get a pretty good idea of how taking some extra steps at planting can improve stands and yields," says Monroe.
"We think we space it as accurately as anybody," he adds. "But we had to learn some key things over the years - like slowing down and running at the right speed for the plant population, adjusting for seed size changes when switching hybrids and keeping row units in top condition."
Excessive planting speed can be a yield killer, according to Monroe, planter engineers and university research.
"I picked up a new customer last year who was very particular about planting at the right speed," recalls Monroe. "He got in the cab with me and rode across the field while I was planting his corn. He said he checked the Internet to see what the best planting speed was for accurate spacing and found it to be 4.6 mph. When he looked over at the speedometer, that's exactly what I was doing."
To maintain optimum speed for uniform stands, Monroe's secret is to eye the planter monitor more than the tractor speedometer.
"You can see it on the monitor," he explains. "When you go too fast your plant population goes down, and you know your ground speed needs adjusting."
Monroe advises growers not to go overboard, though. "Slower speeds produce more accurate stands, but you can go so slow you won't get the job done."
Gary Hamilton, White planter engineer, suggests this rule of thumb: One mile an hour per inch of plant spacing. For example, if you have 5" between corn plants for your target plant population, you can drive 5 mph and maintain spacing accuracy.
"That's in a perfect and level seedbed," Hamilton cautions. "Make sure you slow down more for rough and uneven fields. The more the row units are bounced around by uneven soil, the more uneven your stand is going to be with any planter."
Monroe says a five-second planter adjustment when seed size changes can also make the difference between a uniform stand and one with skips or bunches that cut yield.
"Every brand of corn has a medium seed, but from one hybrid to the next, the size often changes," he says. "We have learned to adjust air pressure for those changes because kernel weight and density have changed."
To offer his customers more options on row widths, Monroe operates three planters, all with positive air pressure. He believes that correct air pressure and small adjustments are key factors to uniform spacing.
"Too much pressure, you get doubles; too little pressure, you get skips," he says. "When you start out in the morning, the hydraulics are cold and it may take 45 minutes for the system to get back to where it was yesterday when you quit. So you need to adjust air pressure to keep accuracy up."
To adjust air pressure from the cab, Monroe added a special air-pressure control unit that attaches to the adjustment valve on his planter. He also installed an air-pressure gauge beside the planter monitor to constantly measure pressure on the go and adjust to minor changes in seed size during planting.
"I watch the monitor and if the population goes up or down, depending on seed size, I can flip a switch and get pressure back to exactly where I want it."
Monroe's extra care doesn't stop at the end of planting season. He air cleans each row unit and seed-metering device and inspects them for wear. Then he lightly installs them so brushes aren't tight or under pressure during the off season.
According to this custom operator, taking extra precautions at planting pays extra dividends at harvest. "You can see the difference in uniform stands and better yields," he says.