Experts explain how getting planters into tip-top shape now can save time and money later, while improving yields.

With the planting season less than 2 months away, it’s time to make sure planters are in tip-top shape.

Two planter experts with decades of experience — David Moeller, Moeller Ag Service in Keota, Iowa, and Phil Needham, Needham Ag Technologies in Calhoun, Ky., — share their troubleshooting advice for no-tillers.

In addition to these troubleshooting tips, Moeller also suggests growers consider new technologies for their planter to save money and increase yields.

1. Level The Planter.

Make sure the planter is level, Moeller says. Changing tires on the tractor or pulling the planter with a different tractor from the prior year can change the levelness of the planter.

Changing the air pressure in tires can affect the level of the planter, too, he says.

2. Scrutinize Disc Openers

Sound disc openers are the key to effectively opening the seed slot, Needham says.

Most new planter disc openers are 15 inches in diameter with a 0.5-inch bevel. When they wear to less than 14 inches in diameter, they should be replaced.

Disc openers should be adjusted together by removing spacers behind the hubs to obtain 1 to 3 inches of disc contact.

"Drive chains are not very expensive. I would change them yearly..."

— Dave Moeller

“Disc-opener contact distance and pressure vary by disc blade thickness and by manufacturer, so be sure to check with the operator’s manual or dealer for optimal settings for your planter,” he says.

Make sure gauge-wheel pivots are not worn to the point they flex away from discopeners, Moeller says.

As gauge-wheel pivots wear, they pull away from the disc openers, which need to make a consistent “V.” Worn pivots will mess with your seed trenches.

“As blades wear and separate, this can result in a ‘W’ profile in the bottom of the seed slot,” Needham says. “When the blades are new, both blades cut like one and make a ‘V’ with an acute angle, which is ideal to press seeds into the furrow with a device like a Keeton seed firmer.”

As blades lose their edge and move apart, the soil contact point changes and it’s more difficult to penetrate hard ground and cut through heavy, damp residue, Needham says. These worn blades are acting like two separate discs, he adds.

EXCESSIVE WEAR. As discs wear, they lose contact, eventually resulting in two blades entering the ground separately instead of working together and entering the ground as one. Poor soil and residue penetration frequently results, along with increased hairpinning.

3. Check Seed Tubes

In older planters, seed-tube edges may be worn.

In extreme situations, the edges can curl up and seeds can hang on these corners, Needham says.

4. Examine Seed Meters

Make sure the seed meters are cleaned, turn freely and are properly adjusted, Needham says.

If using a finger-pickup unit, have all meters checked on a Meter Max Test Stand. However, make sure the seed meter is calibrated for what you’re planting, he says.

If the meter’s calibrated for medium rounds, it won’t help much if you’re using small flats or large flats.

“It’s vital that a farmer uses the seed shape, sizes and seed treatments that the meter is calibrated for,” Needham says.

5. Measure Row Unit Spacing

Use a tape measure to check the distance between discs and closing wheel assemblies on each row unit, Needham says.

For example, if the rows are on 30-inch spacings, that’s the distance needed between the discs and closing wheels of each unit.

“There are a lot of planters out there with bent or twisted row units,” Needham says. He says he’s seen many planters with spacings of 29, 31 and 32 inches instead of the required 30 inches.

GOOD CONTACT. Most disc openers should be adjusted to around 1 to 3 inches of contact distance. This photo shows good disc contact on a John Deere planter.

“If units aren’t correctly aligned perpendicular to the planter toolbar, it’s more difficult to consistently open and close the seed slot,” Needham says.

The majority of planters Needham sees have one or more bent or tweaked row units, especially on outer rows. It’s essential to check the distance between them to make sure they are all correct and consistent.

6. Eliminate Parallel Arms’ Play

See if there is play in the parallel arms’ bolts and bushings, Needham says.

“As planters get older, there’s more play in the parallel-arm pivot points,” he says. “Most planters need new bolts and bushings after a number of acres. Oversized bushings are the best fix on older models.”

The best way to determine the amount of play is to raise each unit with a floor jack positioned under the double-disc openers until the parallel arms are horizontal, Needham says.

As the holes around the bushings become egg-shaped, it changes the way the disc openers enter the soil, he says. And if things are really bad, the wear in the arm, bolts and bushings create vibration. Vibration can affect seed drop, Needham says.

If there is as little as a 0.1-inch gap around the bolt and bushing, the space can cause the unit to bounce and leave doubles and skips.

7. Check Drives

In addition to checking the parallel-arm bushings, look at the drive chains on row units, Moeller says. Stiff drive chains can make the seed meter jump or jerk.

“Drive chains are not very expensive. I would change them yearly,” he says. Scrutinize idlers and bearings on the drive shaft, as well as cable drive systems, Moeller adds. Cable drive systems do need to be maintained.

Consider New Technology

Moeller not only recommends checking for common planter problems, but considering new technology like seed clutches. Variable-rate technology for seeds and fertilizer coupled with auto-steer and row-shutoff clutches create a powerful package of tools for no-tillers, Moeller says.

He adds that new technologies can save farmers hundreds and thousands of dollars a year. Seed shutoff clutches top his list, followed by the ability to shut off the flow of liquid nitrogen to each row, as well as technology that allows farmers to change down pressure on the go.

"There are a lot of planters out there with bent or twisted row units..."

— Phil Needham

“With input costs rising so much, you are spending $100 per acre on seed costs alone,” Moeller says.

A 2,000- to 2,500-acre, corn-and-soybean operation probably has 100 acres of point rows, waterways and buffers, he says. In 2008, he installed air clutches on a 24-row corn planter at a cost of $8,000, or $333 per row.

“With 100 acres, you could pay for that system in 1 year. That’s savings on the seed costs alone.”

There’s not only the savings on seed, but also from not having skips or doubles acting as weeds, Moeller says.