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Manage down-force

New monitors and individual-unit controls give growers a better shot at top yields

It was in March 2012 that Dr. Fred Below of the University of Illinois first published his list of the seven wonders of high-yield corn production, revolutionizing how North America’s farmers and agronomists think about corn management.

Is it time to shake up that list?

Even keeping in mind the differences between growing conditions south of the border and in Canada, it’s stunning to see how much has changed in just five years, and it’s arguable that Below’s “group of seven” should maybe be expanded today to as many as nine or 10 critical parameters affecting performance and yield.

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Some of those new factors might even surprise you.

As precision ag systems continue to flex their muscles, with everything from yield monitors to variable rate systems to data management platforms, there’s a case to be made for boosting the importance of planter down-force as a factor in improving emergence and ultimately yield.

Try starting with a comparison to electronic technology. Less than 20 years ago, computer manufacturers and Internet service providers tried to convince consumers that everyone except a rare straggler was already hooked up to the Inter­net. Perception didn’t equal reality, however, as Internet usage among businesses was actually only about 50 per cent at the time, while consumer usage was thought to be roughly half of that.


Top seven yield factors for corn

In March 2012, this was the list of Dr. Fred Below’s seven most influential factors in driving corn yields. How much will this change in 2017?

  1. Weather
  2. Nitrogen
  3. Hybrid selection
  4. Previous crop
  5. Plant population
  6. Tillage
  7. Growth regulators

The same phenomenon is colouring the uptake of precision ag systems: the number of users hasn’t mushroomed the way some manufacturers and dealers have suggested.

Yet one of the challenges in wider use of precision ag systems is the very definition and varied availability of different precision systems. Some farmers have managed to keep their choices limited to yield monitors and auto steer while others are delving into variable rate fertilizer systems (Y Drops, for one) or UAV monitoring. That kind of choice can be daunting — even intimidating.

Much the same is true with down-force. Seed dealers and advisers are realizing there’s a greater impact from “proper” down-force on a planter. Yet there are many systems to address that goal, from a simple spring system to pneumatic to hydraulic or even fully automated systems that adjust down-force as many as three times per second per row unit.

“The precision guys have been incredibly successful with that concept, so much so that we’re all putting those kinds of systems on our planters,” says Steve Hosking, product specialist with AGCO Canada. Nor are they alone. Deere, Case, and Kinze along AGCO’s own White planters have been incorporating new down-pressure systems in the last few years.

The advances in down-pressure have been enhanced beyond spring, pneumatic or hydraulic systems, but what’s impres­sed Hosking the most are the advances in monitoring systems that measure everything that is affecting the seed-drop by the row unit. An operator will see real-time percentages of population, singulation, down-pressure and seed spacing, including skips, doubles and misses. The new systems warn when the row unit starts to bounce, so the operator should probably slow down to get better seed placement. They even go to the extent of showing the operator the value of the lost crop in dollars and cents if they don’t correct the adjustments that are causing the inefficiencies.

This is a representation of the SeedSense 20/20 monitor and the information it provides, including population, down-force, ground contact and loss per acre (middle of the fourth column).
photo: AGCO Canada

A grower can even have electric drives that provide variable rate and swath controls that are individual to the row unit. It has improved performance to the point where the operator in the tractor knows exactly what’s happening in the rows behind him With all these technologies, there’s little doubt the grower has better control over their seedbeds than ever. Even if they still got out of the tractor and dug for seed, there’s little chance they could ever tell how many skips and doubles there are, or how much the row unit has been bouncing.

It’s that kind of information that has improved the performance on planters, providing operators with information that allows them to make the necessary adjustments to plant the seed at the depth and spacing they want.

Precision ag means precise data

Does a grower become a better farmer just by buying new electric drives for a planter or having automatic down-pressure sensors on each row unit?

Not without proper instruction and a level of familiarity. But once those are achieved, there’s certainly the opportunity to advance efficiency and improve production.

The overall trend in precision ag planting has been slow in its adoption — much like other systems — and some of that has to do with the age of farmers, many of whom struggle with efficiency on a computer. Now, when talk to turns to using a monitor, Hosking says the adaptability changes.

“With this monitor, it’s more of a hands-on concept, spelling out what needs to be adjusted back at the planter,” Hosking says. “The average farmer is pretty good at operating machinery, and this kind of technology makes sense to them. It seems that it’s being more readily adopted than other precision technology that has come along before it. Maybe that’s why it’s taking off and it’s such a big news story.”

If there is an impediment to its rate of adoption, the biggest one is the price of corn, especially when it’s around US$3.50. Hosking believes that if we were at the price levels of two to three years ago, more growers would be making more purchases of this type of equipment. Farmers do want this technology, he insists; they are struggling to pencil it out right now in the current marketplace.

Control the controllable

Adding precision ag adds one more component in the production spectrum that is readily controllable — unlike the weather. Everything else — nitrogen levels, hybrid selection, population, tillage — are all aspects that growers control. For Tom Snyder, controlling the controllable in the form of down-force can come at a basic level or at several advanced levels. The first, most important step is paying attention to the down-force.

“It’s going to be an advantage, just simply the act of paying attention, and saying, ‘We’re going to be more actively adjusting our down-force according to conditions,’” says Snyder, owner of Grand River Planters in Caledonia, Ont. “Tech­nically, that can be done without a monitor, as far as making adjustments with the tools that we have and making changes accordingly. The reality is that it gets us part of the way down the path. In order to do it properly, an automatic control down-force system is going to get us further.”

Snyder has an AirForce system that controls things planter-wide, and that’s still better than making manual adjustments according to field conditions, because it’s going to react as it goes through the field. The next step is to go to a faster-acting hydraulic system that’s still either planter or sectional control, but the ultimate really is an individual row control that senses each row and then controls each row.

“I don’t think any of those options are bad, it’s just a matter of setting your sights on the end goal and then deciding how you’re going to get to that end goal,” adds Snyder. “It could be incrementally or it could go all-in and go to the Cadillac system right off the hop. None of those answers is wrong.”

They’re not wrong, but Snyder also acknowledges the adaptability of the individual plus the unique properties of each farm. Grower A may be in a situation where they don’t need a down-force control system, and then it becomes a cost or an expense instead of an investment. However, Grower B might be in a spot where the numbers are telling Snyder that they really should invest in a DeltaForce system and that they are going to get a good payback, and that it will be an investment and not an expense.

“From our standpoint, in our operation, what we do with growers is we’ll have the down-force conversation,” says Snyder. “The reality is that I don’t know his situation well enough to say, ‘AirForce is the answer for you,’ or ‘DeltaForce is the answer or something in between is the answer.’ What I do tell them is to get a monitor in their cab that tells us what their down-force is currently. And then with that data, it’s really about collecting information and making an informed decision.”

The one thing Snyder has learned from his dealings is that when a grower starts to measure performance first — not control it — it can be a real eye-opener to the farmer or the operator as to how much variation there is within a field or even within a known soil type across the field. There’s so much variation in some fields that even with Snyder’s four-row planter, he can still see differences from row one to two to three or to row four.

Although he agrees that precision ag has been slow from a planter/down-force perspective, Snyder points to automatic control systems, where the uptake hasn’t been “aggressive” but it’s been encouragingly good. “Definitely the move to measuring it — the first step in that journey — we’ve had really good uptake with that,” says Snyder. “Growers are looking at that aspect, what it’s really looking at, and then learning what’s our next step, what’s our biggest payback or that ‘lowest stave on the barrel’. The reality is that if a grower is looking at down-force, that’s a good thing, but if his soil pH is down around 5, we’re going to tell you to get that pH fixed first.”

If down-force isn’t the grower’s primary limiting factor, then perhaps it’s not the best move for them to make at this time. Growers don’t need to just “jump in” with both feet and try to incorporate all aspects of a precision ag system. That course has the potential to be too daunting or overwhelming. There’s also a little bit of resistance to the learning and familiarity, yet one of the biggest trends Snyder is seeing is that no matter what system you’re using to get that data in front of you, there needs to be a clear understanding of what the data are telling you.

“Precision Planting, for instance, telling you what your down-force numbers are probably is a different language than what the John Deere system is and that’ll be different from the AgLeader system,” says Snyder. “But the message to the grower really needs to be that whatever the system you’re choosing, you have to know what the numbers are, and that really puts the onus on the dealer.

It’s a considerable hurdle and a very important point: it’s wrong to assume growers understand a system just because they may be ready to purchase it. Snyder says it’s good to know that people have their strong points — and their weak points — and sometimes people need a little help defining both.

“I think it’s something that we didn’t pay enough attention to (in the past),” says Snyder. “There are always going to be the growers who pay attention to their details and probably do those field-to-field adjustments. But the reality is that there are a lot of planters out there that haven’t been adjusted since they were delivered from the dealer. The industry as a whole is paying more attention to down-force. Does that mean everyone’s changing their down-force on every field? No, but I think it’s becoming one of those factors we look at.”

What’s ahead?

Are there further enhancements coming or is the better course of action a matter of getting more farmers to make a move on down-force systems? That’s a tough question. There are those growers who led the charge to get automatic down-force systems on their planters and they’re likely to develop more sophisticated systems. That approach isn’t for every grower though. Still, it’s likely having more growers pay attention to down-force and its impact on planting will be a benefit to the whole industry.

Right now, Snyder has a DeltaForce system that reacts three times per second per row. If he has a grower who’s on the fence about down-force systems, Snyder says he doesn’t need the top of the line. What he does need is to understand what down-force is and how it changes in the field.

“It’s about educating and working with growers, and everyone’s situation is so different,” says Snyder. “As a dealer, I have no right to push a grower in a direction that’s just going to cost them money and not give him a return. Even if it gives them a return six years from now, it’s not fair to them to have that conversation that starts with step one that’s going to give you 12 bushels using DeltaForce. Maybe just paying attention to down-force will give them four bushels. Well they’ll be better off with that four bushels in year one than spending all of that money on Delta­Force.”

This article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of the Corn Guide.

About the author

CG Production Editor

Ralph Pearce

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