Planting Corn: Then and Now

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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Well, according to the USDA Planting Report issued, May 13, 2013, the corn belt as a whole has been able to plant 28% of the planned corn acreage, with my state of Ohio at 46%. At this same time last year, 83% of Ohio’s corn was in and the corn-growing belt as a whole was at 85%, but 2012 was a year with an unusually early spring.

It seems that when I was a kid, we routinely didn’t begin planting until near the end of May. Of course we had to first plow under last year’s hayfields, then disc it a couple of times, and finally harrow it with a spike tooth before the soil was considered fit to plant corn. With a 2-bottom plow, 7-foot double disc, and a 3-section spike tooth, soil preparation took a while.

Our old No. 919 John Deere, 2-row, horse drawn corn planter didn’t put the seed in the ground very fast, either and I remember many years planting corn well into June.

To get straight, evenly spaced corn rows in those days depended upon the skill of the driver and the planter’s row markers. Those row markers! I’ve told the story of when I was just a little shaver of four or five and Dad was planting with a team, turned at the end of the field and dropped the disc row marker right on top of my head. Of course, I shouldn’t have been where I was and, although there was enough blood to make my mother faint when she saw me come screaming, there was no permanent damage except for the scar.

After the horses were sold, we shortened the tongue of the planter and pulled it with the tractor. When I was old enough to drive the tractor, Dad rode the planter and he often had to yell at me because my mind would wander from the task at hand and the tractor would wander off the mark.

After a while, a 3-point hitch was welded up for the planter and corn planting became a one-man operation. I don’t remember the row markers being used after this so by this time I guess I was old enough to make straight rows without prodding.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to see how a larger-scale farmer plants corn in the modern, tech-savvy world. Martig Farms, near Salem, Ohio, where I live, puts in more than 2,000 acres of corn each year and they were hard at it when I was there.

The large field where they were working had been in wheat the previous year and had been chisel plowed in the fall. A Cat Challenger tractor was pulling a 36-foot wide Krause field cultivator and a Great Plains seed-bed conditioner with open basket crumbler rollers, ahead of the planter, leaving the soil in excellent condition for planting.

A John Deere 1770, 16 row planter set for 30-inch rows was doing the planting behind a John Deere 8320T tracked tractor and I rode in the tractor cab for about an hour, getting my first look at GPS planting.

Remember how I said that back in the day the only assurance of straight, evenly spaced rows was the driver and row markers? Well, this planter had row markers but they were never used, and amazingly the driver never touched the tractor’s steering wheel while crossing the field. In spite of this, the rows were arrow-straight and each pass was spaced exactly 30 inches from the previous one.

This was accomplished through the miracle of GPS (Global Positioning System), which I don’t really understand. Briefly, there are a number of satellites, owned by the U.S. Government and circling the earth while continually transmitting a signal giving the satellite’s position and time. A receiver in the Martig’s tractor cab grabbed the signals from several of these satellites and, by means of a computer program and other wizard-like stuff, kept the tractor and planter in a straight line and in exactly the correct position to assure no missed or overlapped spots.

At each end of the field, the driver raised the planting units, clicked a button to turn off the GPS control and manually turned the rig on the headland into position for the next pass. He clicked on the GPS again, let go of the steering wheel and the tractor was automatically steered a little left or right into the precise position for the next sixteen rows, where it stayed with no further driver input.

Back and forth we went across the field at a steady 4.5 MPH, planting about 15 acres each hour. I think that on our hilly Pennsylvania farm, the largest field we had was maybe 17 or so acres and I’m sure it took at least a couple of days to plant the thing.

Actually, the Martig’s 16-row planter is small compared to some of the behemoths out there; a 1260 planter from Case-IH is available in a 36-row, 30-inch spacing configuration – of course, it costs more than a quarter of a million dollars to buy – a far cry from our old John Deere 2-row that undoubtedly cost less than $50 new. Think of it! With one of these babies, around 50 acres could be planted every hour!

My grandfather, and even my father, would be astonished at the progress that has been made in agriculture, and they would be appalled at the cost of the equipment, fuel, seed and fertilizer necessary to plant crops today.

I can hardly believe it myself.

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