Farm Management Minute: How much planter do you need?

Farm Forum

It seems like everything related to farming has grown over the past few years. Farm sizes are getting bigger, costs and profits are increasing, and yields keep going up. Planter size is no different. Not too many years ago, a farmer with an 8 or 12-row planter was considered a big operator. Today, it is rare to see anything smaller than 16 rows.

Several things have driven this change. The first would be the size of the farm. Data from the South Dakota Center for Farm/Ranch Management indicates that the average number of acres operated from participating farms increased by 10% from 2004 – 2010. This trend, coupled with more farmers transitioning from a small grain rotation to primarily row crops has also put more stress on the planter.

The weather is another factor as it can create very small planting windows; a lot of ground needs to be covered in a small amount of time. I worked with a farmer who traded for a larger planter, he knew it was likely more planter than he needed, but he justified it by saying he wanted to be able to get his corn planted in 3 days and his beans planted in 3 days (if necessary). With the wetter springs we had in 2007 – 2011, that was about all of a window that some farmers had to plant.

The technology with GPS, auto-steer, and row shutoff has made the larger planters easier to handle. Sixty foot planters are getting more and more common in our area, with a few producers even running 90 foot planters. This, in addition to central fill seed tanks, bulk packaged seed, and seed tenders keeps the planters rolling and covering a lot of acres.

A few years ago, the auto-steer and automatic row shutoff options seemed like amenities that were nice, but not necessary. However, as the cost of land, inputs, and the commodity continues to increase, maximizing efficiency has never been more important. Considering adding row shutoff to a new or existing machine can give the farmer sticker shock. However, this is likely an investment that can pay for itself in as little as one year. When you consider the amount of high price seed saved, reducing the yield drag from overlapping, as well as the accuracy of acres reported to crop insurance which could result in premium savings or higher prevent planting payout, it does not take long to pay for the add on.

The planter has turned into one of the larger equipment expenditures on the farm. Each producer will have to make their own decision on how big of a planter and how many amenities are needed for their operation. The trend of farms growing, costs rising, and technology continuing to improve will likely not change anytime soon, so considering an investment in a bigger machine is likely in your future if you have not already done so. One important thing to remember is if you are going to grow a bumper crop, you have to start with getting the seed into the ground!