Calibrate planters now for better canola later
By Jennifer M. Latzke
Farmers can be tempted to take shortcuts—especially when they are hurrying to get seed in the ground.
But, Josh Bushong, Oklahoma State University Extension canola specialist, said taking the time to calibrate planters and drills before planting canola in the fall can be the difference between a poor and a successful harvest next summer. He and Randy Taylor, OSU Extension machinery specialist, shared their tricks to planting a more uniform—and profitable—canola crop.
Bushong said canola isn’t quite as forgiving as other crops as far as seeding goes. The seed is extremely tiny, and farmers with improperly calibrated planters can find themselves throwing real dollars on the ground along with too much canola seed. Also, the crop requires good seed-to-soil contact and consistent depth to emerge. And in order to get that, residue must be managed and the planter or drill set to place the seed in the furrow where it will grow well.
“My first question to farmers is if they are going to plant in a conventional or a no-till seed bed,” Taylor added. “Conventional till seed beds are a lot more forgiving. You can make more mistakes in a clean till and still get a stand.”
In Oklahoma, many no-till farmers are using their current row crop planters and using sorghum seed metering plates for canola, Bushong explained. Planters and drills both have their places, but Bushong said he’s seen better emergence with a planter than a drill. Taylor agreed, and said planters can give farmers more consistent depth control, metering and singulation of seeds, which is key in no-till situations.
“A lot of guys have the mindset of growing row crops and they transfer that over to canola,” Bushong said. “With a row crop planter we are trying to singulate the seed. Typically, in each cell of the metering plate you’d want one seed per cell and meter them one at a time.” A sorghum plate works well, he said, but it might hold 2 to 5 canola seeds per cell, depending on the vacuum level.
“As long as you know what you’re dropping, you can calibrate and go by your book or manual and figure out the gear ranges you need to get the desired plant population,” Bushong said.
Row crop planters have a target population of seeds per acre. Farmers just need to figure out their seed size, and how many seeds are in a pound. From there they can determine how many seeds they’re dropping and the proper settings.
“Sugar beet plates also have smaller seed cells, and a farmer might get singulation,” Bushong said. “But, if they’re planting a hybrid with really large seeds or it’s an open pollinated variety, or they’re shooting for a 3 pounds per acre seeding rate, the sorghum plate will work just fine.”
The trick to calibration of a planter is making sure that even the smallest of gaps are closed so that the tiny canola seed is planted only where the farmer wants and only in the amount he chooses. Bushong said that there is a gap around the perimeter of the disk that farmers may often overlook in their seed calibrations. This gap, while perfectly acceptable for other crops, can allow canola seed to escape. Fortunately, it’s simple to fix with a file and some patience.
“To modify that gap around the perimeter of the disk, we modify the ridge so that it fits more snugly along the meter house,” Bushong said. “Typically, we will modify each plate to each row unit, so we’ll number them. You just drop a light down into the seed box, and then spin the plate to see where there are gaps. Mark on the plate with a chalk pencil where you have the gaps, then turn the plate over and using those marks as a guide file down that portion of the plastic ridge that needs to come off. It’s all a one-piece molding.” Once this has been done, the farmer shouldn’t have to repeat the process.
While he’s there, though, the farmer should also look at the brushes that eliminate the vacuum so that the seed falls off the plate and down the tube into the planter. These can get worn and affect seeding rate as well.
General planter maintenance can go a long way in creating that uniformity in a canola field, too. Bushong said farmers should look at the opening discs, which can get worn where the two discs meet.
“Take two business cards and slide them in from the top and the bottom in that gap until they are snug,” Bushong said. “The gap between the two cards should be about 1.5 inches thick. If there’s excessive wear, they won’t meet and soil will get through and you won’t get a good furrow.”
Canola farmers should also look at using seed firmers on their planters. These firmers, he explained, pushes that seed to the bottom of the furrow trench for a consistent depth, and is critical when you’re planting a small seed like canola.
“If we can get consistent depth, then all the plants will emerge at the same time,” he said. “But, if that depth varies, then we can have some canola twice as big as other plants in a week.”
Row crop planters also give canola farmers more options for residue management. Remember, Bushong explained, canola has to have good seed-to-soil contact.
“This one is set up with row cleaners, that move wheat residue out of the seed furrow,” he said. “With canola, we want a clean furrow. We don’t want a layer of residue the canola has to come up through.”
There are many types of residue management attachments on the market. Bushong said they use a wavy coulter in front of the opening disc. This attachment cuts the residue and with a “wave” will push it aside. “We must move the residue, but we don’t want to throw out more soil from that seed trench than we have to,” Bushong said.
Taylor said getting the canola seed at the right depth is critical. “Especially in any kind of residue, or no-till environment,” he said. “That layer of thatch will hold your gauge wheels up. When you’re planting corn at 2 inches, and you hit a thatch that’s a half-inch of residue, you can live with it. But, if I’m set at three-quarters of an inch deep and I hit that half-inch of thatch, with canola it’s a big deal.”
Closing wheels are another popular option for planters, and there are also many options on the market from which farmers can choose. Bushong said the farmer should really know his soil conditions in the field and select closers that will firm the seed furrow so that there is no air in it. But, they should be careful to not compact the seed furrow too much so that the canola has a difficult time emerging.
When the farmer is ready to hook up his planter to his tractor, Bushong said he should pay attention to how the unit is trailing.
“You want the unit to be level so that the four-link suspension is parallel to the ground,” he said. “You may have to adjust the down pressure on a specific row unit, or the depth wheels or the closing wheels.” Again, the more precise a farmer can be in laying out the seed, and ensuring that it goes into the furrow where he wants it, the more uniform the crop will be at emergence. Bushong said he prefers to run his particular unit free-floating, so that it will float along with the contours of the ground. In no-till situations, though, it is important to calibrate this down pressure.
One final test should be done in the field before the farmer is ready to plant, and that is to check to see that he is in fact dropping the number of canola seeds he’s calculated. Canola is so small, though, it is nearly impossible for a farmer to go a round, hop down, dig in the dirt and see the number of seeds he’s dropped, Bushong said.
“What we do is drop a bag down the seed tube, put the box back on and drive a certain distance and then we can check to see how much seed we’ve caught,” he said. “When we’re planting a field we know how many passes are in an acre and we can judge by how much seed is still in the box.”
As for planting speed, Taylor advises sticking in the 5 mph range. “I certainly wouldn’t want to plant over 6 mph because of row unit vibration,” he said. “Generally, there isn’t a lot, but you’re planting shallow. I’d think about going slow.”
Some wheat farmers are getting by with using a typical end wheel box drill, set up for no-till, Bushong said. The trick is to set the seed cups set all the way down to plant 5 pounds of seed per acre, rather than the typical 60 pounds per acre for other small grains.
“With canola, you have to shut it all the way down and try to get all the seed cups the same setting,” Bushong said. “But, if you’re planting wheat and then back to canola, even if you calculated and indexed where you want to set your flutes, there’s usually slack in that lever.”
Bushong’s answer? He made a tool out of a bolt and a couple of nuts that is specific to his drill. “I can adjust the shaft to where the flute is just touching that tool,” he said.
Whether a farmer uses a planter or a drill to put his canola in the ground is a matter of preference, the two agreed. But a little bit of care and precision this fall before planting winter canola can really pay off next summer at harvest.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.