Photo: Dennis Hancock

Sometimes the difference between a solid stand and one with patterned skips is taking extra time to double check that the equipment has been properly serviced and calibrated.

Gary Bates, director of the University of Tennessee (UT) Beef and Forage Center, found this to be true when helping a producer seed an alfalfa field.

“At first glance, the farmer’s no-till drill seemed fairly clean and in working order,” Bates writes on the Beef and Forage Center’s website. Although upon further evaluation, Bates found that mud and bugs were responsible for plugging lines that could have caused a 21-inch gap in every 10-foot width of the drill.

To avoid mishaps like this, Bates follows a specified process when planting with no-till drills. He declares, “It is a pain, but worth the effort.”

1. Make sure the seedbox is clean.

There always seems to be old seed or other trash in the box. Use either a vacuum or blow air into the box to remove the debris.

2. Make sure the seed flow path for each tube is clear.

Confirm that the path from the box, through the tube, and down to the soil is clear for each tube. There are a number of places that can be plugged.

Often, spider webs or other debris are blocking a tube, or mud has gotten underneath a coulter and plugged the seed opening. You need to make sure seed is flowing all the way through and getting to the ground. “To do this, you will usually have to remove the tubes to make sure they are clean,” Bates notes.

3. Check seed flow rate.

Most drills will have a calibration chart to indicate the setting for the seeding rate for various forage species, but this chart is just a starting place because they usually are not exact. Actual seeding rates can vary within seed lots of the same species, and seed coatings can make a difference as well.

It is important to check the flow rate to ensure you are putting out the right amount of seed per acre. You don’t want to have to go over the field twice, or worse, you don’t want to put all your seed on half of the field.

Check the seed flow rate by putting bags on the tubes, pulling the drill 100 feet, and then weighing the collected seed. To calculate seeding rate in pounds per acre use these formulas:

If measured in grams - grams of seed divided by drill width, then multiplied by 0.96.

If measured in ounces – ounces of seed divided by drill width, then multiplied by 27.2.

4. Check seeding depth.

After all of this is done, there is one more important step: Pull the drill to check the seed placement depth. Most forages need to be planted at ¼-inch. Planting too deep will result in poor emergence and a less than desirable establishment.

Seeding depth is controlled by the press wheels. Adjust how far each press wheel is allowed to go up; the less the press wheels can move, the more shallow the seed will be planted.

All of this extra effort might take time and be a pain, but as Bates explains, proper equipment maintenance can make a world of difference in stand establishment when using a no-till drill.

C.J. Weddle

C.J. Weddle is serving as the 2020 Hay & Forage Grower editorial intern. She currently attends Mississippi State University, majoring in agricultural education, leadership, and communications. She grew up on a farm in Vardaman, Miss., where her family raises sweet potatoes and soybeans.