Cultivating Success: Maximizing Returns When Planting No-Till Corn
February 21, 2023 | By Colin Rogers, ForGround by Bayer Sustainable Systems Agronomist
No-till planting. You either have it figured out, think you do, or have admitted that there must be a better way to cultivate success in your fields than your current practices allow. If any of these apply to you, continue reading.
The agriculture industry is amid a golden age of technological advancement, and with it there is a lot of noise regarding new modifications for planters with promises of amazing returns at prices of only a few dollars an acre for the next decade. Sound familiar? This article will help shed light on planter modifications and settings that are a great starting point for new operations or are the next step for experienced adoptees to cultivate your next corn sowing with greater success.
When it comes to corn, maximizing yield potential in your fields begins with even emergence. In fact, our agronomists agree that a successful stand of corn will have 90% of corn seeds planted emerge within a 24-hour window, with studies showing kernel count per row dropping significantly after 72 hours of initial emergence. (7)
No one product can achieve perfect emergence. It is a combination of field conditions and operator finesse, such as planting at the right depth (about 2 inches), with ideal soil temperatures, into even soil moisture, with great seed to soil contact. However, not all fields are the same, and likewise not all sections of a single field are uniform regarding soil types, moisture, and residue density. This is where planter modifications like residue managers, seed firmers, and down force systems can create more uniform conditions, allowing for greater productivity.
Residue managers come in many different styles and mounting locations to customize a planter to the environmental conditions of the farm it is on. The coulters can be a more aggressive shark tooth design or they can be a less aggressive finger style that moves less but larger pieces of residue. Regardless if it is a unit or frame mount, or if it is air controlled or a pinned height, the goal of any residue management system is to move at least 90% of standing residue while disturbing as little dry topsoil as possible while planting. (4) Moving this residue increases ground contact of the planter gauge wheel, allowing more consistent seed depth. Additionally, moving residue out of the path of the opening discs reduces the chance of residue hair pinning seeds in the furrow, providing even moisture to improve chances of hitting that emergence window goal. The cost of residue managers varies by manufacturer, luxuries such as pneumatic control cost more but provide improved functionality from the cab that aid in managing field uniformity. Bayer’s on farm research has shown residue managers to improve corn yield by 2.5% when adjusted properly. (2) Depending on farm size, the breakeven point is generally in the first 1 to 3 years, suggesting that residue managers are a wise investment and a necessary tool on a no-till planter.
Tips for row cleaners in corn:
- With pneumatic cleaners, use 15psi down pressure as a starting point.(3)
- Target 10% residue cover after cleaners.
- Disturb as little dry topsoil as possible.
- If cleaners are mounted to row unit, be aware that as pressure is increased to the cleaners, more lift will be applied to the row unit, potentially affecting seed depth.
Seed firmers are arguably the lowest cost modification that can be added to a no-till planter that consistently show a positive return on investment with breakeven points within the first year. Many designs exist, but the basic principle of a seed firmer is to press seed firmly into the furrow, with most capable of applying starter fertilizer. Be on the lookout for modular designs that allow for easier component replacement to save time in the off season not having to disassemble an entire row unit to get to a mounting bolt. As a stand-alone product seed firmers improve yield, but when combined with row cleaners, Bayer research has demonstrated corn yields improved as much as 5%. (2)
Tips for Seed Firmers:
- Consider using starter fertilizer, but not too much since it is in furrow.
- Consider modular designs for easy maintenance.
- Check condition throughout the season, rocks and hard soils can cause premature wear.
What about closing wheels on planters, should you modify those too? The answer is it depends. If your planter is still wearing the original solid, rubber closing wheels, my suggestion is you start having discussions with local growers that have switched into no-till already. As your soil properties begin to change through years of not tilling, initially it will take longer to dry in the spring. If you are a patient person and can wait until conditions are perfect, whatever your planter is currently outfitted with will probably give you adequate seed to soil contact. If you get more nervous with each occurring rain event in the spring, then I suggest investigating outfitting your planter with more aggressive closing wheels. Aggressiveness varies by design and manufacturer, but generally look at closing wheels with spikes around the wheel. These spikes are designed to chip the seed wall closed, rather than press them closed, and can perform exceptionally well at closing the furrow when combined with a solid closing wheel (potentially cutting modification costs in half). This allows for getting great closure, while reducing the risk of sidewall compaction by putting too much down pressure on the closers. How much down pressure do you need? This varies and should be checked throughout the day when conditions are marginal. You should be able to get to seed at the bottom of the furrow with little effort, and the top of the furrow should be completely sealed. Don’t settle for one perfect setting! We all have our favorite, most dependable notch on the back of the planter, but when the soil is damp it can let us down.
No discussion about no-till planter modifications would be complete without addressing downforce systems. But before discussing one of the more expensive options, let’s explore what options provide the greatest returns. Many operators find that when switching to no-till that additional downforce is needed to make consistent depth with the planter row units due to the additional crop residue and the harder soil surface not tilling properly, at least during the transitionary period. The most economical upgrade in this situation is to upgrade to heavier duty springs on the parallel arms. In some cases, it may even be necessary to add additional weight to the planter frame itself to keep the row units from lifting. The downfall of spring down pressure is that it is consistently applied regardless of soil conditions, and when wet can lead to sidewall compaction.
If your fields are very consistent as far as soil type, slope, and tilth, then springs may be all that is necessary to provide ideal conditions for even emergence. However, if planting conditions vary across your fields then pneumatic downforce systems are the best choice for your planter. These systems can detect the decreasing load of your as you work across the field and detect planter ground contact then make adjustments on the fly. In most situations use the manufacturers automatic setting, which allows the downforce units to adjust to changing conditions across the field, idealistically allowing each pass of the field to have consistent conditions for emergence. When used in conjunction with the FieldView™ Cab app, operators can visualize differences in their fields and see planter ground contact across the field, which allows the operator to have confidence the seed is appropriately at the correct depth. If downforce is set at the ideal pressure, there will be very little loss of contact points on the display map. A little loss of contact is good, it means the planter is set very close to optimal conditions, if on the other hand no loss of contact is ever seen, the planter may be putting more down pressure on the row than is necessary, potentially causing sidewall compaction, leading to complications later in the season. (5,6)
Tips for Downforce Settings:
- If soil conditions are very hard, pneumatic downforce systems can push the row unit out of the ground, and more weight may need to be added to your row units or delay planting until rainfall can soften the soil.
- Using correct downforce settings for soil conditions outyields using too much downforce.
- Benefits to automatic pneumatic downforce systems are more apparent in fields with lots of variability.
- Often the automatic setting is the most ideal setting with pneumatic downforce systems.(3)
Of course, to achieve great emergence it helps to plant the best genetics for no-till conditions. Set time up with your local seed rep and agronomist to identify the best corn products for your area and your soils, your target planting window and your yield goals. No-till planting conditions are generally marginal year to year. Be certain the genetics you are working with can withstand the additional pressures of prolonged cool, wet soil.
- Channel Field Focus Training 2021 - 2021 Channel Field Focus Training
- Impact of planter settings on corn yield. 2019. Bayer Learning Center at Monmouth, IL. https://www.dekalbasgrowdeltapine.com/en-us/agronomy/impact-of-planter-settings-on-corn-yield.html
- Effects of field residue management on corn and soybean establishment and yield. 2015 Demonstration Report. Monsanto Learning Center at Huxley, Iowa.
- Huber, A., King, D., Ribey, M. Best management practices residue management. Ontario Federation of Agriculture. AF179. http://omafra.gov.on.ca/english/environment/bmp/series.htm/.
- Effect of planter down force at planting on yield. 2015. Bayer Learning Center Summary, Gothenburg, NE. Technology Development & Agronomy
- Determining down force to set a planter. 2021. https://www.dekalbasgrowdeltapine.com/en-us/agronomy/determining-down-force-to-set-planter.html.
- Impact of Uneven Emergence in Corn - Impact of Uneven Emergence in Corn - MLC- DEKALB
Performance may vary, from location to location and from year to year, as local growing, soil and weather conditions may vary. Growers should evaluate data from multiple locations and years whenever possible and should consider the impacts of these conditions on the grower’s fields.
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