Avoid Common Corn Planting Mistakes

"You may think some of this information is too basic," says agronomist Jim Cisco. "But these are questions we get each spring from farmers when we visit fields after the crop is planted. By helping them prepare ahead, we want to help farmers avoid problems in the field."

Published on: Mar 30, 2011

At grower meetings this winter, the Channel seed brand was promoting what their agronomists and sales reps call "seedsmanship." What's that? "We are providing information to our customers to help them plan ahead and be better prepared for planting time. We want to really help them avoid potential problems in the field," explains Jim Cisco, lead agronomist for Channel's central division, which covers Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Channel is the name of the company that is made up of the former Crows, NC+ and Midwest Genetics seed companies. Channel is owned by Monsanto.

Farmers face similar problems every spring. However, the correct solution to a problem may change as planting conditions change. "We try to help farmers recognize the key principles, so they can make the right move and avoid the pitfalls," says Cisco. This is better, he notes, "than when we visit as an agronomist on a farmer's farm after the problem is discovered in the field.

"By May our phones are ringing with calls from customers with questions about things going wrong or starting to show up in corn and soybean fields," says Cisco, who is based at Webster City. "A high percentage of the problems we see would have been easily fixed had someone made a key decision before they began planting. It may be something as simple as planter adjustment for seeding depth. Large planters quickly multiply an incorrect setting over many acres."

What's the most valuable piece of equipment on your farm?

One of the presentations at the Channel meetings was titled "The most valuable piece of equipment on your farm." Every planter comes with crop residue managers or row cleaners. Some farmers take them off. Or raise them up and don't use them. "You can go out on a service call and the farmer isn't happy with the stand," says Cisco. "You say, 'It doesn't look like the row cleaners were doing much' and you ask, 'Do you have row cleaners?' The farmer answers, 'yes, they're stacked on a pallet in my machine shed.'"

Use those row cleaners. Inadequate stands often result when farmers chose not to use row cleaners. The attachments help get crop residue out of the way so the planter units can run smoothly through the soil and tuck the seed into the ground at uniform depth and spacing.

"It's worth the effort to keep the row cleaners or residue managers on the planter and adjust them as field conditions change when you move from field to field," says Cisco. "That's your final chance to improve the seedbed, just ahead of when the planter rolls through it. Once the tillage tractor has moved on ahead of you, if you still have too much crop residue on the soil surface, it'll be the planter's residue managers that save the day."

If the attachments aren't on your planter, you'll be trying to stuff seed down through crop residue and likely won't be successful. You'll hairpin the seed into a wad of residue and won't get good seed-to-soil contact, he says. Or the soil temperature variance in the row will be too great, and you'll have cold spots under the crop residue. "It's a simple thing when the planter comes set up with row cleaners," he notes, "why not use it well?"

The Channel meetings covered other timely topics, too, including seed treatments, fertilizer application, weed management and planter preparation. And there were questions from farmers, too.

Monitor your soil conditions. When is the best date to start planting corn? "I've changed my perspective," says Cisco. "I now look less at the calendar and less at soil temperature and more at the condition of the soil. If the seedbed is in great shape and we're still a shade under 50 degrees for soil temperature at the 4 inch depth, I'll plant corn. We are putting three fungicides on the seed, and a seed-applied insecticide. Today, we have better genetics, trait protection and better seed treatments."

Many farms are equipped to cover a lot of acres fast. It's not uncommon to be running a pair of 16 row planters or maybe a 24- or 36-row planter. That opens up timing options. "You can spread out your planting dates, and look for the time to plant when a seedbed is in great condition. Make progress when it is favorable for planting, instead of forcing it to happen," Cisco advises.

What corn plant population are you shooting for in your fields? With the new hybrids, be sure to aim high enough. At the meetings, "we also talked about yield per thousand plants," says Cisco. "Most farmers are aiming for around 34,500 plants per acre in central Iowa. A few are starting to creep higher, especially when you bring row spacing down from a 30-inch to a 20-inch width. Then we see populations jump up to 36,000 to 38,000 plants per acre as a final stand."

What about twin rows? They are working for some farmers. Twin rows have unique challenges, as you have two rows of corn running in very close proximity to each other, only 6 or 8 inches apart. Getting the crop residue out of the way so the planter can run smoothly allowing the residue to flow through the row units is the key, he notes.

Are you the person who always runs the planter tractor?

Extra effort pays at planting time, adds Cisco. If you're the person who's always running the planter tractor, let someone else run it for a few rounds. Get on your four-wheeler and follow the planter to observe its performance. Get off and do some digging to measure seed depth and check the seed spacing in different rows.

Get in the habit of auditing everything around the planter. If an adjustment is made, have your helper double check that everything is set the same.

If your "sixth sense" is telling you something isn't right, pause for some re-checking. Count the seed bags and figure the acres covered to verify that you are hitting the desired population—even the best seed monitor gets fooled occasionally. If a row sensor keeps giving you an alarm, do some digging in that row until you are confident the seed is being metered correctly.

Summing up: "It pays for farmers to review the basics of planter operation before they start planting," says Cisco. "Watch your planter speed, seeding depth and seeding rate or plant population; adjust accordingly for field conditions. Make the necessary planter adjustments to match the changes in soil condition and in the amount of crop residue."

Channel has a program called the Field Check-Up Series, he adds, "in which our company's seedsmen walk fields with our customers at key points during the growing season to help the farmer monitor the crop and offer agronomic recommendations for improving crop performance."