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High-speed planting zooms ahead

But is it because of the time savings, or the yield increase?

Hard to believe it’s already been eight years since high-speed planters were introduced in North America. The vanguard consisted largely of European manufacturers like Horsch, Amazone and Väderstad, with additions from John Deere, Precision Planting and, more recently, AgLeader.

In that time, more growers have been adopting and adjusting their spring operations to use the technology, primarily for planting corn.

The introduction came at a time when growers were facing an increasing rush in spring, a result of variable weather patterns and larger acreages, which compressed planting into ever-tightening windows.

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High-speed planting promised to shorten the planting season without sacrificing seed placement, often a casualty of planting at higher speeds with a conventional finger pickup meter.

Interestingly, two U.S.-based articles appeared within eight days of each other last March, one unveiling the results of a five-year study of high-speed planting technology and the other warning against planting at higher speeds with conventional equipment. Without high-speed technology, the consultant in that article warned, yield losses could cost a grower more than $75 per acre.

It raises the question again. Is running a high-speed planter similar to operating a conventional planter at higher speeds?

Obviously not, and neither of the stories blurred that line. The grower-consultant quoted in the earlier story was simply trying to get growers to pay more attention to planter preparation and to focus on its efficiency — including slowing down. Bill Lehmkuhl is a grower from Minster, Ohio, who also operates Precision Agri Services. In a presentation last winter, he told growers that if they have a 16-row planter and they are planting 34,000 seeds per acre (at average speed) at $300 per unit, they’re running through US$0.86 per second, just for the seed. One hour translates to more than $3,000 on seed, which is why having the planter prepared for spring is so important.

Added to that, a YouTube video detailed a speed check that Lehmkuhl conducted, where dropping speeds on conventional planters by two miles per hour (from 6.5 m.p.h. to 4.5 m.p.h.) could mean a yield difference of 25 bu./ac.

So different

In the other article, Dr. Matthew Darr, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, was one of the researchers involved in the five-year study of high-speed planting technologies. The project tested the John Deere ExactEmerge and Precision Plant­ing’s SpeedTube designs and found that the high-speed systems reduced skips, which resulted in more consistent seed spacing.

“The biggest misconceptions around high-speed planters is just the use of the term, ‘high-speed planting’ and what that actually means,” says Darr. “When we say ‘high-speed planters’, they physically carry the seed to the ground and completely eliminate ricochet within the seed tube. It’s just a different way to plant.”

Using a conventional finger pickup metered unit, maximum speed should be no more than five miles an hour, says Darr, echoing Lehmkuhl’s findings. With Deere, Precision Planting, Ag Leader and other systems, there are two key differences: the first is that the meter has to handle the increased speed — it has to spin faster, and they’re designed to do that. The second — and more important difference — is it no longer uses a drop-tube that allows the seed to fall 20 inches from the exit of the meter down into the furrow. Instead, the seed is physically carried all the way to the seedbed

“I look at it as being a totally different implement,” says Darr, comparing it to using a disc versus a field cultivator, or a grain drill compared to a planter. “It’s a different meter… it’s not that much different from finger pickup versus vacuum row units. High-speed planting is much the same.”

Darr actually suggests the term “high-speed planting” is a bit of a misnomer because it isn’t just the impact of higher speeds, it’s the physical distribution of the seed into the furrow at higher speeds. And it’s the metering that makes the biggest difference.

“The first thing we looked at was whether you see decreases in placements and singulation spacing of corn,” says Darr. “We found that with the conventional row unit, as your speed increases, your randomness and variability increases with it, so you do a worse quality job of placing seeds when you go up in speed.”

With “high-speed” row units, that no longer happens. As the speed of operation increases, there’s no difference in the singulation spacing of the final plants in the ground. It breaks that fundamental relationship that says “the faster you plant, the more random your seeds are going to be.”

A key point of clarification from Darr’s research or from any operator familiar with high-speed planter technology is that there is no increase in yield from a high-speed planter compared to a traditional planter operating at conventional speeds.

So what’s the advantage of going faster?

That value all comes back to the narrow planting window and capturing more sunlight, says Darr. Regardless of where a grower is farming, there is a response curve that says the later a crop is planted in the season the lower the yields are likely to be.

“It’s the desire to hit windows consistently and make sure the crop is getting in on time, in a way that’s not creating mitigating circumstances for late planting,” says Darr. “From a pure value perception, in a perfect planting year when you have a nice long window and you’re not fighting the weather, there is zero expectation that you will have a yield improvement from high-speed planting. It’s not section control or some other technology that will deliver ‘x’ per cent every year — that is not what it does.”

In a tough year with tough conditions and tight windows, it’ll pay back by getting more crop in the ground when the weather is fit and will do more to enhance emergence and sunlight capture. In the most basic terms, every grower wants to give their crop the best start, and with corn being very deterministic, if it gets off to a bad start, it’s less likely to recover compared to a crop like soybeans.

Time is money

It’s been three years now that Peter Rastorfer has been using a high-speed planter, in his case, a 16-row Väderstad Tempo. He uses it for corn and edible beans on 2,500 acres at his family’s operation near Monkton, Ont. He agrees with Darr’s findings (see main article) that high-speed planting is not a yield-booster, only a time-saver.

Peter Rastorfer.
photo: Supplied

“We were upgrading planters and it was either go to a wider 24-row unit — to match up for our operation — or go with this 16-row, 30-inch, high-speed planter, to try to do similar acres per day,” says Rastorfer, who also grows soybeans and wheat. “That’s the reason why my operation went to that. We’re trying to get an average of about 250 acres done per day with that planter. Some days you’re planting 150 and other days you’re getting 350 acres done, depending on the field sizes.”

Rastorfer acknowledges that more of his peers are using high-speed planters and it’s becoming an accepted — if not desired — system for planting. Yet he concedes that he was a little hesitant the first year he began using it.

“I was thinking there was no way I could travel at the nine miles per hour that they’d told me I could with the Väderstad,” he recalls. “So seven was the most I would go with that, because I really felt uncomfortable with it that first year. We did some trials at nine miles an hour and when things came up, I was very impressed with the placement and the job it was doing. It was unbelievable.”

Rastorfer also notes the equipment sector has done a solid job, not just in differentiating between high-speed planters and driving planters at high speeds, but at keeping growers engaged through their web sites and other resources.

“That’s how I learned about it before I bought my Väderstad,” says Rastorfer, adding that the experience was positive because it was simple to access the information he wanted.

But it’s the time factor that also persuaded him to move to a high-speed planting system. Although he relies on it to get his corn and edible beans in, he acknowledges that in certain instances, it would be just as suitable with soybeans.

“That comes down to the operation,” says Rastorfer. “They do a great job of planting soybeans, it’s just that the machine is limited by how much seed you can carry, so it’s not the most ideal for soybeans where you need more seeds per acre, versus corn where you’re needing fewer. But the benefits of using the high-speed with soybeans is similar to corn for a certain producer who might not have the acres.”

The other advantage for Rastorfer’s operation with the Väderstad is that it offers a dry fertilizer, 2 x 2 option versus a liquid program, an important option for his farming operation.

Additional information:

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of the Corn Guide.

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Ralph Pearce

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