It used to be that only equipment dealers offered planter inspections. Now seed companies are getting involved. Here's what seed people and planter manufacturers say they can teach you about planters.

Last spring, some 50 Minnesota farmers squeezed into Larry Larson's seed shed just outside of Sargeant to hear Pioneer agronomist Jerome Lensing talk not about seed, or soil, but - are you ready? - planters.

For a full hour, over hot coffee and buttered ham sandwiches, Lensing described why it is important to check all parts of the planter - from the hitch pin to press wheels -to improve stands. Of particular importance is getting your planter seed meters inspected, cleaned, repaired and calibrated each spring before planting.

Afterward, Larson, a Pioneer dealer, demonstrated a new seed meter test stand called MeterMax. It has a special belt with 50 slots that the seeds fall into to display whether there are skips or doubles in the row. If the meter is set correctly, each slot will contain one seed.

Larson was the first dealer in Minnesota to purchase the seed meter test stand since Pioneer made them available to its dealers in 1998 as part of its new planter maintenance and adjustment service. "We're hoping this will jolt farmers to go home and look at their planters," Larson says.

Pioneer isn't the only seed company offering such a service. Last spring, Novartis launched a planter maintenance and adjustment program through its dealers called the TruPlant System, based on the six years of experience of key dealers in Minnesota. "We see this as a very natural fit with selling seed," says Bob Navratil, technical information manager with Novartis. "It is the right thing to do for our customers."

Tapping genetic potential. So why are seed companies taking such a sudden interest in your planter? Because they know that in order for their hybrids to reach their full genetic potential, they have to be planted correctly. But oftentimes they aren't because the planter is not in good working order. In a recent survey, Pioneer found that nearly 50% of all meters serviced in 1998 were in poor condition and in need of some repair.

When planters aren't performing at their peak, they are less able to singulate and space seed evenly in the row, which is necessaryto reduce competition between plants and maximize the ears per acre. "The goal is to get one harvestable ear on every plant because it's ear count that makes yield," says Gregg Sauder, inventor of the MeterMax test stand and owner of Precision Planting, a planter adjustment training service. "If a planter puts two seeds in the same spot or fails to drop a seed, you can end up with two small ears or no ear."

That, in turn, can take a bite out of yield. Pioneer agronomists estimate that yield losses due to nonuniformity of plant spacing are often in the range of 3 to 5 bu./acre for modern planters but may exceed 10 bu./acre with poorly maintained, misadjusted or older planters.

Another study, conducted by Dr. Bob Nielsen at Purdue University, showed an average yield loss of 2.5 bu./acre for every inch of standard deviation of plant spacing in several Indiana environments.

There are other reasons, too, that seed companies are getting involved in your planter's functioning. One reason is varying seed sizes. Any given hybrid comes in a range of sizes, and each size can plant differently through a planter meter unless it is set to plant the actual size you've purchased.

"It used to be one hybrid number was sold in five sizes," explains Mike Denton, a former John Deere technician who helps calibrate the planter meters of Pioneer customers near Princeton, IL. "Now, there are basically two sizes but there's more variation between those sizes."

Another reason is tougher planting conditions. Many farmers today plant reduced or no-till, which means the seedbed is not as smooth as it would be if it were tilled and leveled each year. Rugged conditions can cause the planter to bounce and drop seeds less uniformly.

Finally, seed is being planted at higher populations than in the past - as high as 30,000 or 32,000 seeds/acre - to maximize yield. And many farmers may be driving faster to get through the additional acres they may have acquired in recent years.

"In 30-in. rows, if your seed population is 30,000 and you are going 5 mph, you're dropping 12.6 seeds/second," says Darrel Loudon, a Pioneer dealer in Long Point, IL. "That's fast. To ask a machine to pick up one seed, not two, at that speed is hard to do."

Because of all these reasons, seed companies are crossing over the line of genetics and taking a hard look at your planter.

What's covered. Novartis and Pioneer dealers clean and calibrate Kinze and John Deere finger pickup units. They will also inspect and calibrate precise air pressures for John Deere and AGCO White air units.

During the inspection, both companies focus on the planter meter, the part responsible for measuring out the seed so that it is well spaced and without skips and doubles. "The rest of the planter also can have an influence on plant spacing variability," says Novartis's Navratil. "But if you don't get the beginning right, the rest of it is not going to work either."

Novartis and Pioneer dealers take apart the finger pickup meters, clean out hardened dirt, wire brush away rust and replace any worn parts. The meter is then reassembled and calibrated to the population, planting speed and spacing desired using the actual seed you purchased. "A planter can plant any seed with proper adjustment," Sauder says. "But it must be calibrated to that size seed."

Before and after the inspection, each meter is placed on a test stand that is equipped with a special belt that displays whether it is singulating seed. The goal is to reach a singulating accuracy of 98% or higher.

"We have our own tricks, and you buy that knowledge and ability to set the planter," Sauder says. For example, Pioneer dealers align belts on the finger pickup units, adjust the tension nut that holds the finger assembly and mix and match parts from competitive makes of equipment to best match the size of seed you will be planting.

The payback. But as a potential buyer of inspection services, you need to know the answers to two questions: One, are these inspections worth the investment? And, two, should you trust your seed dealer to do the testing when equipment dealers may be able to do the same job for less?

The answer to the first question is yes, both seed companies claim. The cost for the inspection, repair and calibration will vary by dealer, but the seed companies recommend that their dealers charge $25/meter. Parts are extra but, in total, labor and parts typically average $0.80 to $1.05/acre, according to a survey of repairs made by Pioneer representatives.

Both companies say that the customer more than reclaims those costs. Last year Pioneer representatives collected small plot comparisons of yields when using a calibrated meter versus yields when using a non-calibrated meter and found that use of a calibrated meter gave an average 10-bu./acre yield advantage. A 10-bu. yield advantage at $1.50 corn gives a $15 advantage. One dollar per acre for the service and repair works out to a net return of $14/acre.

The answer to the second question really depends on the dealer, the seed companies say. However, they say that having their dealers work on your meters results in the following benefits because their dealers: * Run your seed: The seed companies run the meter in conjunction with the specific seed you will be planting to ensure the best possible stand. However, equipment dealers say that they, too, will run your seed if you provide it. * Make seed size recommendations: "The seed dealer can make specific recommendations about the seed the grower is wanting to plant," says Navratil. "If that grower likes to plant rounds, they can set up the meter to plant rounds better or can make recommendations to the grower as to how to minimize the plant spacing variability given a specific seed he will buy." * Use belted test stand: Not all equipment dealers use a test stand with a belt that checks for in-row spacing. Some may not have a test stand at all or may use one that measures seed population only. "They can show that 100 or 1,000 seeds were dropped," Sauder says. "But how many of those seeds were skips or doubles?" * Mix and match parts: When Pioneer seed dealers replace a part, they use the part that is best suited to the type of seed you plant, even if that means putting in a part by a different make of planter. However, equipment makers warn that if the customer lets the seed dealer mix and match parts, he or she has just invalidated the equipment warranty provided by the equipment maker on that meter. * Do a thorough job. Seed dealers may be able to spend more time with your meters because their margins may not be as tight as those of equipment dealers.

What planter makers say. Equipment companies have always maintained that getting your planter inspected each year is critical to optimum planter performance. And they say the best people to do it are those who make the planters.

They claim that their planter technicians can make the same meter adjustments that seed dealers make. What's more, they will look at the whole planter to ensure all components are operating smoothly.

"These are the people who have been to the schools to learn about all the planter systems, not just meters - whether it be hydraulics, electrical components, meter drives or monitors," says Bill Barr, senior marketing and service representative for the John Deere seeding group. "So you put that knowledge in with the seed meters, and you can get a good inspection of a planter by the planter pros." The company also reminds that most farmers still go to equipment dealers for their planter service clinics.

Equipment companies also have access to seed meter test stands with belts that can show errors in row spacing.

Kinze Manufacturing is the only planter manufacturer that makes its own meter test stand. And just last year, it came out with a second-generation test stand, called the T3000, which uses an electronic eye instead of a belt to track seed spacing. The stand can test for up to 9,999 seeds, which is more than some belted stands, to provide a reliable reading.

"It plots and graphs the drop of those seeds and gives you a percentage of skips and multiple drops," says Bill Heick, manager of product planning and support for Kinze.

Heick also discounts the fine-tuning and calibrating that is done by seed dealers. "We advise customers to stick with factory specs when adjusting planters," Heick says.

Although Novartis and Pioneer claim that their test stands can work on Kinze, John Deere and AGCO White planters, Keith Hulsebus, service specialist for AGCO White planters, cautions that some test stands with belts will not work on its planters because they do not have the same geometry of the meter location in relation to the seed tube that other planters do.

AGCO's Hamilton adds that on White planters, no adjustment to the meter is necessary other than varying the air and having the proper disc. "You just need to make sure that brushes are in good condition and that the tolerance in relation to the seed disc and meter is correct," Hamilton says.

Best of both worlds. Case IH argues the same points but also sees the benefits of seed companies' involvement. "Working with seed companies is important," says Ron Thompson, Case IH product information specialist. "When seed sizes change, we need to be able to plant that size seed. We need to know how our meter handles that size seed. What results are we going to see?"

For that reason, the company is working on a training procedure with Novartis to offer combined planter inspection clinics. Novartis dealers will cover important points about the seed such as the best planting depth, population and variety selection, and Case IH dealers will make the necessary adjustments to plant that type of seed. "Our plan is to have something in place by this spring," Thompson says.

"This is an excellent example of two companies working together to give producers the best opportunity to succeed," says Novartis's Navratil.

But regardless of which dealer's inspection program you choose, both sides say the important thing is that you get your planter looked at before entering the field each spring.

"Number one, we like to see them cleaned and inspected every year," Kinze's Heick says. "The biggest gain is to make sure that is done so that we don't have rust buildup and different foreign material in it. By doing that, you will be 98% accurate right there."

Dale Atkins, one of Pioneer's more than 200 seed sales representatives now offering a planter maintenance and adjustment service, demonstrates this walk-through inspection you can do at home to help make sure your seed is planted correctly.

1 When walking toward the planter parked in the field, crouch down and make sure the tops of row units are level. If they're not level, you will need to adjust your hitch height so seed is planted at a uniform depth. "If the hitch is slightly lowered, the units will nose dive and the disc openers will run deeper than the seed tube in the trench and you will plant too deep," Atkins says. "If the hitch is slightly raised, the units will heel so that the covering disc runs with more pressure than needed and you plant too shallow."

2 Check the planter unit for shake. Are bushing and arms tight? This will help ensure the unit won't bounce during planting. "The less they bounce, the more accurate the spacing between the rows," Atkins says.

3 Check disc openers for wear. "As they wear, they can create a W as opposed to a true V shape in the trench, which can affect seed depth," Atkins says. To test for wear, put a business card between the discs. The discs should be close enough together to hold the card between the 4 and 5 o'clock position (approximately 1_1/2 to 2 in.).

4 Inspect the seed tube guard and replace it if it's worn. Next, ensure that the plastic seed tube retaining clips are intact and holding the seed tube firmly in place in the middle of the seed trench. Finally, make sure discs are not rubbing up against the sides of the seed tube. If that happens, the wear edge on the bottom of the seed tube will curl and prevent the seed from dropping straight down into the trench. That can affect spacing."It's the difference between an A job and C job of planting," Atkins says.

5 Make sure closing wheels are aligned with the seed trench. The press firming wheels should track right to the sides of the furrow made by the disc openers for proper firming and closing. "The closing wheels can wear in the bracket that holds the covering wheels, and that can change alignment," Atkins says. "When alignment is changed, it puts pressure on top of the seed versus to the side."

6 Make sure that the gauge wheels are set so that they are in contact with the disc opener to prevent soil from falling in the seed trench.