By Karen McMahon
Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
Low commodity prices have taken a toll on some major farm-equipment purchases. But grower interest in new planter technology is strong -- especially for downpressure control systems. Automatic downpressure helps create consistent seeding depth across a field, which leads to even plant emergence.
More growers like Jay Riddell and his father, Bill, are investing in the new planter downpressure systems to improve yields. Last spring, the Sparland, Ill., growers upgraded from a pneumatic system to hydraulic. The hydraulic downpressure system provides row-by-row control versus planterwide control achieved with his air system.
Hydraulic systems are more expensive, but Riddell says they are worth the investment. "I would say over the last few years, we've had good emergence, but this year, we had great stands of corn," he relates.
Even plant stands are crucial for achieving higher yields. Plants straggling behind the rest of the field will ding yields enough to pay for some type of downpressure-control system. For example, university research found corn yields decreased 6% to 9% when one-fourth of a field emerged one and a half weeks later than the rest of the field planted at optimum time. The research was conducted at the University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin.
Many growers have been unaware their seed placement was uneven until new planter monitors came onboard.
"The awareness of inadequate planter downforce control is higher today with new technology in planter monitoring," reports Cory Muhlbauer, Precision Planting. "Different soil types and ground conditions require different downforce settings."
Riddell uses Precision Planting's hydraulic system called DeltaForce. He bought it after watching downpressure readings on his 20/20 SeedSense monitor.
Four years ago, Riddell first invested in a Precision Planting pneumatic downpressure system called AirForce. He saw an improvement in plant emergence with the system that automatically adjusts downpressure planterwide. But then he started paying attention to the downpressure settings.
"I could see it's easy to err on the side of too much downpressure," Riddell explains. "That will bite you in a wet year, which is what happened the past couple years." Wanting more precise control of downpressure, he upgraded to the DeltaForce system.
Installed on his John Deere 1770 ProDrive planter, DeltaForce offers instantaneous adjustments based on soil conditions by the row. "It reacted quickly, even adjusting to wheel tracks from previous field passes," Riddell says. "It worked amazingly well."
Riddell's farm is 100% strip-till, and he noticed another benefit of the system. "With the AirForce system, if we got off the strip, the air [downpressure] system would put the corn on top of the ground. If we are off the strip, DeltaForce takes care of it and adds enough downforce to keep the row unit in the ground."
Other factors like high-speed planters are driving interest in downpressure control. "Planting is changing," Muhlbauer adds. "As planters operate at faster speeds, it is critical to have better control of soil-engaging components' response, and automated downforce control on every row of the planter is important."
In addition to Precision Planting, Dawn Equipment and Ag Leader offer hydraulic downpressure systems for most brands of planters. Dawn's hydraulic RFX system controls downpressure by the row. Ag Leader's new Hydraulic Down Force system offers row-by-row sensing and controls downpressure on up to eight sections on one planter.
These new hydraulic systems are a couple of generations ahead of what most growers currently use. Equipment manufacturers estimate 80% of planters are still equipped with manual-adjust spring systems. As one manufacturer quipped, that is "cruise control for planting," with one pressure setting used in the entire field.
ADJUSTMENTS ON THE GO
Manual settings don't do an adequate job. "The original manual systems only have the proper amount of downforce about 65% of the time," says Precision Planting's Muhlbauer. "So the other 35% of the time, downpressure is either too light, causing shallow planted seeds, or too heavy, increasing the risk of furrow sidewall compaction."
Pneumatic, another generation in downpressure control, entered the market several years ago. Today, almost all new planters are equipped with air bags for controlling downpressure. Generally, these systems take readings across the planter and average them either planterwide or by multiple-row sections. Pneumatic allows adjustment from the cab.
The pneumatic systems like Precision Planting's AirForce do a better job maintaining consistent downpressure. Muhlbauer explains AirForce provides adequate downpressure 85% to 90% of the time.
Hydraulic systems offer the highest level of downpressure control with 95% to 99% consistency possible, according to the companies. Hydraulic adjustment is fast with multiple adjustments possible each second.
The newest hydraulic downpressure systems require a financial investment. DeltaForce from Precision Planting costs up to $1,500 per row.
Dawn's RFX row-by-row system also costs $1,500 per row. If a customer wants only section control, the price is $850 per section.
Late-model John Deere planters can now be retrofitted for more accurate downpressure adjustments. (Deere and Dawn announced an alliance last May that allows Deere to sell and support Dawn hydraulic-controlled downforce systems, row cleaners and closing wheels for planters.)
Dawn recently introduced the X-Sense Fluid Coupling Down Pressure Sensor, which replaces standard depth adjustment mechanisms on Deere planters. The X-Sense is able to filter out mechanical vibration and noise created by planter gauge wheels to make an accurate downpressure adjustment in all types of field conditions. Pricing is not available.
Ag Leader's new Hydraulic Down Force system marries the row-by-row concept with eight sections. "We [can] sense the downpressure needs of every row and adjust pressure across up to eight sections," says Alex Lundgren, of Ag Leader.
"We offer options to allow a cost-conscious customer to invest in this technology and systems that sense every row for the user with highly variable conditions." Cost starts at $850 per section.
Other less-expensive options are available for keeping planter row units in the ground. Kinze Manufacturing has offered a hydraulic weight-transfer system on some planter models for a few years.
"A hydraulic cylinder located on each wing redistributes the weight from the center of the planter out to the wings," says Kinze's Phil Jennings. "It gives us a uniform footprint across the total width of the machine and reduces compaction often found around the center tires on bulk-fill machines."
For more information on the various systems, visit agleader.com, dawnequipment.com, kinze.com or precisionplanting.com.
By Karen McMahon
Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
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