Thursday, May 12, 2016

Introduction to Modern Planting Technology

Planting season is in full swing in Central Illinois as most of the corn is planted and growing, while soybeans and other crops are not far behind. I was fortunate to witness the planting in the field behind our house, and experienced my first ride in the tractor while planting so I could witness some of the fascinating technology that has made farming more efficient than ever.

Farmer Wagenbach chose this 16-row planter that appears to be the same unit we've seen in this field before. The basic concept of the planter hasn't changed much in the last few decades, but there are several ways planters are controlled today that wouldn't be possible without computers and global positioning systems (GPS).

Here's a closer view of one of the planting units for those that are curious about the hardware at the ground.  While there are some features visible here that improve the seed bed in several ways, the technology that really caught my eye was in the tractor cab.

The bottom screen in this stack of three is a Precision Planting SeedSense monitor that tracks the performance of each planting unit and warns of detected problems.

The middle screen is a display connected to the auto-steer feature of the tractor. Most of the time I rode in the cab with Farmer Wagenbach he wasn't touching the steering wheel as the tractor was steering itself. After one picks a point at each end of the field on the first pass along one side, the computer draws a straight line between those points and establishes additional parallel lines all the way across the field spaced as wide as the planter being used. When the tractor is steered close to following one of those lines, the automatic steering feature takes over and keeps the tractor on that imaginary line until the driver takes control to turn the tractor around at the end of the field. In the end, all the rows are straight and evenly spaced.

The monitor on the top shows what portions of the field have already been planted and records all kinds of performance data for the planter that can indicate problems while planting, or can be compared to harvest data months later to study the effects of planting performance on yields. It's also an easy way to recognize slivers of land that aren't planted yet, so those areas won't be missed. Incorporated in the planter monitors is the ability to control planting units independently. This minimizes overlaps that result in reduction of yield.

Here's a spot in our field where the curved edge of the field on the right produced a small area between that pass and the straight rows on the left. This sliver was visible on the monitor so Farmer Wagenbach was able to pass over the area with the planter allowing the GPS-controlled planting units to drop seeds where the computer suspected none had been dropped before. The result is the five partial rows in the middle that, while not perfect, still drastically reduced the amount of overlap that would have occurred without this technology.

This caused me to be observant of planting patterns in other fields in our area, and it appears that several area farmers use similar technology. In this image, you'll notice the inside rows end nicely next to the outer rows that curve around them.

This is another part of the same field that shows the lack of overlap as the rows in the middle of the field on the right intersect with the rows that follow the edge of the field on the left.

For contrast, here's a neighboring field that was planted the old fashioned way with overlap in these tricky areas along the field edges.

Finally, another example that I found impressive. This one had the inner rows running diagonal to this edge of the field, which would have resulted in lots of overlap in the past, but looks almost effortless as planted this year.

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