By Jim Patrico
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
If you have any doubt about the importance of a good planter, listen to Roger Schmidt, a man who sells both tractors and planters for Heartland Tractor, a Case IH dealership in Nevada, Mo. "If I see a guy who has a shiny new tractor pulling a worn-out planter, I see somebody who has it backward. That tractor isn't doing anything but going back and forth. That planter is what makes you money."
OK, Schmidt probably is underplaying the role of a modern tractor with that observation. But he does so for a reason: He is convinced that getting a good stand is vital to his customers, and a planter is what makes that possible. "There are so many factors that can affect the bottom line you can't control. So control something that you can. Get that seed in the ground right," he says.
How do you know what's the best corn/soybean planter for you? As a wise man says to most questions about choices: "It depends." In this case, the answer depends on a multitude of factors. Farm size. Field size. Help at planting time. Management practices. Technology requirements. The list goes on.
To get some insight into the decision-making process, we talked to three farmers and the salesmen who helped them pull the trigger on recent planter purchases.
Dennis Meech, 60, describes himself as "old school" when it comes to planters, meaning he is not keen on a lot of technology. But the more you talk to him, the more you understand that his idea of a basic planter is a lot more nuanced than it used to be.
"Precision is so much more advanced," he says. "I remember if we put corn in the ground, we were happy."
Now, his planters, at the very least, must have section shutoffs, downpressure controlled from the cab and other bells and whistles that a few years ago were either luxuries or nonexistent.
Meech, who farms with his son, Christopher, and partner, Barb Kirk, says when he was farming 500 to 700 acres, he had a wider planting window. But now that he farms about 2,800 acres, he has to move more quickly, and technology helps him do so with precision. It also helps him be more efficient. "When seed was $40 per bag, you didn't worry too much about overseeding," he says. "At $300 to $350 per bag and lost yields ..." He trails off, dreading the consequences of inefficient seeding.
It used to be that Meech would wait several years before trading planters. New technology and other features have sped up his trade-in timetable. Two years ago, he traded a 2005 John Deere 1790 16/31-row planter on 15-inch spacings for a Case IH 1240 with 20-inch spacings and chain drive.
"We are not afraid to shop around for all colors," Meech says. "The Case IH had a couple of features we really liked: the leading edge opener blade and a simple-to-use depth-control system."
After a couple of years of good experience, he is ready to trade planters again. This time, he has two more "wants" than last time. First, Meech plants into standing corn stalks, which he says can grab chain drives and "tear them up." His next planter will have cable drives. Second, new-technology planters have enormous hydraulic demands. Meech's next tractor will have its own PTO pump to give extra capacity.
When he goes shopping, Meech will compare dealerships and service departments. Lately, he has dealt with Schmidt at Heartland Tractor, and the two have developed a rapport and respect for each other. Meech likely will wind up buying from Heartland again.
Although Schmidt says there are no "typical customers," he approaches each with questions about technology (How much do they want? How comfortable are they with it?), current equipment inventory (How much pulling and hydraulic capacity does their planting tractor have? Do they want to stay brand consistent?) and attachments. (What do your farming practices dictate? Have you thought ahead to resale time?) "The more attachments you have, the smaller the group you will have to sell the planter to," Schmidt says.
In the end, "You have to know your customer, but price is kind of secondary," he adds.
A few hundred miles to the east, Steve Clementz, an integrated solutions specialist for Holland and Sons John Deere dealership, in Geneseo, Ill., also tries to match customers and planters.
Clementz says that many of his dealership customers know what they want when they walk in the door. "They have pretty much already made up their minds if they want [for example] to go with the CCS commodity system, or if they want to go with the 1.6-bushel hoppers."
He tries to help them focus on what attachments they need to do the best job on their farms. For example, downpressure systems are hot items now. The advent of in-cab adjustments has given customers an option to step up from manual types. Row cleaners come in many designs, again adding to the list of necessary decisions.
Like Schmidt, Clementz emphasizes the need for a customer to think hard about attachments before he buys. "A lot of attachments can complicate resale. It makes it tough. A [future] customer doesn't want to buy a used planter then take off old attachments so he can buy the attachments he really wants," he explains.
Key choices these days: Do you use liquid fertilizer at planting? If so, what technology do you use to control the application? Also, "Insecticide the last few years has become an issue in this area," Clementz says.
"Do you use liquid or dry? One nice thing about the MaxEmerge system is you can have small hoppers and still have insecticide boxes."
Clementz had an entirely new planter model to talk about last year and says he had "major conversations with customers" about the new ExactEmerge planter, Deere's new high-speed model with up to 10 mph capabilities.
Clementz says those conversations include questions like: "Are you going to stay with a 16-row configuration and go faster? Are you going to move up to a 24-row?"
Some people think the speedier planter will allow them to move down a size, say from a 24- to 16-row or from a 48- to 36-row.
Rod Stinson, of Moline, Ill., considered all the variables and ordered a 24-row 1770NT ExactEmerge for entirely different reasons. His 2-year-old 1770NT MaxEmerge had a refuge tank he didn't need anymore. The new ExactEmerge will have a liquid insecticide tank instead.
Also, Stinson says, "I wanted the new planter for better placement, and it can run faster."
Trading planters every two years has become a pattern for Stinson: "I'd rather do that than rebuild one."
Tom Loitz, Geneseo, Ill., regularly trades planters every three years. Last year, he moved from a 16-row John Deere 1770NT to a 24-row version of the same model. He had been on 16 rows for a decade but decided he wanted to emphasize placement and thought a 24-row planter would let him slow down his speed while covering more ground.
"Another reason we went to the 24-row planter is that we have a 12-row [combine] head. The 16-row wasn't quite matching up with the 12-row, even with guidance," Loitz says.
He ordered a central-fill planter with two tanks, both for seed, and a third tank for starter mixed with liquid insecticide. "We use full rate on insecticide on everything we plant," he says. "It's kind of an insurance package for us."
His advice to others in the planter market: "Row cleaners are a big deal for me," Loitz says. He ordered a Precision Planting system to adjust row cleaners right from the cab. "That is very nice and well worth the money."
As with Kansan Dennis Meech, Loitz says working with the right dealer is key. "My John Deere dealer is close, and they have a parts warehouse 20 minutes from the farm."
Jim Patrico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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