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Need for speed

Need for speed

The rise of electric planter drives offers more precision and the ability to run faster than ever before.

When Rod Schmidt hit the field last spring, he really hit it hard. “After seeing the results, I personally feel very comfortable planting at 10 miles per hour,” says the producer from DeWitt, Iowa.

Schmidt admits running a planter that fast was a totally new experience. His new planter gave him the opportunity to run from 5 to 10 mph without giving up any spacing or depth control. This is something more producers will have a chance to do in 2015 with the rise of several new systems.

Schmidt says running that fast was a fear “until we dug behind the planter to see seed spacing.” The machine he ran was totally new to the market — the John Deere ExactEmerge planter with its brush-belt delivery system. “This planter gives us pinpoint accuracy at the seed trench, which allows us to travel faster because we no longer have seed bounce or ricochet in the seed tube, because it has been eliminated with the brush-belt delivery system,” Schmidt explains.

When he saw the crop come up, he was pleased with the seed stand, noting that the “new ExactEmerge planter was more accurate at 10 mph than my current planter at 5.”

The advent of the electric meter planter isn’t just about running faster. These systems offer true individual-row control on an unprecedented level. It’s a kind of “digital” planting that allows the controller to shut off rows right to the inch. These systems are also much simpler. Gone are the chains, cables, gears and other apparatus that drove planter meters in the past.

“As far as electric meters are concerned, it’s going to become a standard option,” says Drew Gerber, sales and marketing manager for Horsch LLC. The company introduced its first electric meter Maestro planter in 2012, and the response has bettered the company’s sales goals as more farmers see the value of the approach.

“At the end of the day, electric drives are more responsive, but it still depends on the strength of your GPS,” Gerber cautions.

Matching farm to planter

New technology brought to the farm can offer improved efficiency and productivity, but it will also challenge your existing systems. Gerber talks about the ability to run faster with an electric drive, but just because a planter can go that fast doesn’t mean it always should.

“We have gained experience and learned it depends on soil conditions, tillage type, stones and other factors,” he notes. “We have found, however, that we can increase planting speed 20% to 40% over the traditional planting system.”

Matt Birkey, who farms in central Illinois, runs a Horsch Maestro planter and says once he had the row units set up, he was planting at 8 to 10 mph. “It’s all in the seedbed. On one 400-acre field, we were able to run at 9 to 10 mph,” he says. That field was smoother, which allowed him to run faster.

Of course, running faster can change how you manage planting, too. Both Schmidt and Birkey note they changed up their “tending” of the planter in the field. For Schmidt, it meant adding another tender to keep up with the John Deere machine. Birkey added a semitrailer tender — boosting size — to keep up. “You definitely have to have the setup for the planter to be nursed for sure,” Birkey says.

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Skepticism, or perhaps caution, is typically the first approach to the idea of faster planting. Sure, the companies that market electric drives talk about more speed, but how will that work? But it doesn’t take long for producers to get comfortable with the idea, once they get rolling.

Kinze launched its 4900 planter series with an electric drive system into the market in 2014. It offered the ability to meter seed for faster planting.

“I was able to run about 6.5 to 7 mph for the first week,” says Dan Brettnacher, Brookston, Ind. “Once we were able to fine-tune the 4900, I was able to plant at about any speed between 6.5 and 8.5 mph. Our yields were the best we ever had at 200 to 250. I honestly believe now that the bugs are ironed out, this is the best planter money can buy — for me, anyhow.”

Phil Jennings, service manager for Kinze, notes that farmers are adopting this technology faster than many expected. “They see the benefits of simplifying the overall machine,” he says. “The technology provides simplicity, but it also offers functionality, including uniform delivery from the inside row to the outside, even on contours or planting in a circle.”

For 2015, Kinze is offering a new stand-alone monitor solution, developed with Raven, to control the planter. It not only shows individual row performance, but also offers the user the ability to see what’s been planted so far.

Jennings notes that a challenge was the ISOBUS system on different tractors and its interface with the planter. While the 4900 is compatible with ISOBUS systems, the demands of 24 rows of individually controlled drives challenges a 16-channel system. That’s why Kinze developed its own monitor and controller for the planter.

“That’s a planter-dedicated controller, and it does not share with other tractor components,” Jennings adds.

Working out how a new system will operate isn’t easy. Add in the ability to go faster than ever before, and there’s an adjustment curve.

Pedal to the metal

“One of the biggest roadblocks was mentally having decades of experience running at 5 mph,” says Kelby Krueger, product manager, ExactEmerge, John Deere. “[Farmers] have pretty high doubts about operating that fast based on experience.”

In fact, John Deere reports that last year when test machines were out — the company ran several and covered more than 75,000 acres in that pre-launch demonstration period — the impression was that farmers would bump up speeds gradually. “We figured they would go 7 mph and go a year to see how the crop comes up,” Krueger says. “Then be happy with the results and bump up to 8 or 8.5 mph.”

That’s not what happened. “One example I witnessed is a dealer brought farmers to a field to demo the ExactEmerge planter, and the farmers — since it wasn’t their field or their planter — would run at 10 mph, then get out and dig the row, and the next person would get in,” Krueger says.

When farmers testing the planter saw the accuracy of the seed spacing, their confidence at running faster improved. “The spacing was so accurate that they weren’t digging a trench to stumble across seeds. They would dig and move 6 inches and dig — at one location the diggings looked like gopher holes.”

Confidence that planter companies have developed systems that drop seed as promised is key. Electric drives can be incredibly precise in singulation, but what happens to the seed once it leaves the planter is the question each farmer will have to answer.

John Deere’s delivery system, which uses a BrushBelt, holds the seed and drops it close to the ground at a speed that matches the planter. In essence, the seed drop is at zero miles per hour no matter how fast the planter is moving.

The company ran 36 planters in 15 states in 2014 to prove its system would work. Four of those planters had data loggers showing the average speed run by farmers with those machines was 8.8 mph. For those four planters, they averaged 64 acres per hour over 142.8 hours of planting.

Another approach

Precision Planting has its own take on the “low drop” approach, using a flighted-belt delivery system that carries seed to the ground.

The targeted concept is to precisely deliver seed from meter to ground with the least impact to the seed.

Jason Stoller, Precision Planting, notes the company ran planters with the new SpeedTube system at work in 2014 and is launching the product commercially for the 2015 season. “Our product testing was very successful last year,” he says. “We had quite a few planters operated by farmers who ran with SpeedTube last year, and they can’t imagine slowing down ever again.”

Speeds for the planters running the Precision Planting product in the field typically was about 8 mph. “They ran at 10 [mph] at times, but for this first season, their comfort level had them at around 7 to 8,” Stoller says. That higher speed is about a 50% boost in productivity from the same planter. But what does that mean?

Running faster means you cover more ground in a day, but it also means you increase your potential for getting acres planted at the optimum time. Precision Planting ran an interesting study based on 2013 weather to look at actual potential planting days, acres covered and the cost of missing the prime planting window.

First, company officials determined that the optimum planting window with 100% seasonal yield probability for the “I states”— Indiana, Illinois and Iowa — was from April 19 through May 9. Then they looked at days that could actually be planted in that same window — with a conventional planter.

For a typical 1,000-acre farmer in Illinois in 2013, about half his acres would have been planted around May 25, thanks to the weather. The test showed 440 acres would have moved to that later planting date. Precision Planting notes that based on university yield loss estimates by planting date, that cost the farmer about 7% of his yield potential overall.

However, if the same grower could have planted 1.5 times more acres in the optimum window, that would have moved 280 of those 440 acres back into prime planting time. If the farm’s historical average was 180 bushels per acre for its 1,000 acres, then the 5% higher yield from moving those acres into the key planting window would have meant 9,000 extra bushels at harvest. At $3 per bushel, that’s a gain of $27,000 in gross income.

“This is a look at actual planting potential,” says Stoller. “It can add up if you miss that key planting window.”

Usually when you want to cover more acres in a day, you opt for a bigger planter. For Rod Schmidt, the Iowa farmer, getting a bigger planter wasn’t an option. “With the contours and terraces we have here, we couldn’t go bigger, so we had to go faster or get a second planter,” he says. “We were planting at up to 7 mph with our current planter and not doing the best job of it.”

With the John Deere ExactEmerge, Schmidt says, “we’ve blown right past 7 mph. We’re planting at 10 mph — which is almost like running a 36- or 48-row planter.” 

Accessories for speed

A faster planter needs a little help to get the job done right. Here are a few items that either come with the new planters, or that you’ll need to include in your purchase.

Floating row cleaners: Most row cleaners these days float, but that’s the best approach for a planter that can be moving over changing terrain quicker than ever. They will help clear the path for that planter unit. Even in a perfectly prepared seedbed, these can help out.

Down pressure system: Consistent pressure for the openers is more important when moving faster. Keeping ground contact consistent across the terrain is essential.

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