What Happens During Planting?

Planting cornPlanting is one of the busiest and most important times of the year for a farmer. It’s the start to a new growing season and holds promise for a good year. Believe it or not, most of the decisions for a crop are made before and during planting, starting as early as before last year’s harvest. The yield potential for most crops is determined at planting (barring any significant weather or pest interference), so it’s really important that a farmer makes the right choices for their farm.

You might be wondering, “What types of decisions does a farmer have to make during planting?”

I was wondering the same thing, which was one of the reasons I started this #FollowTheField series.

If you’re visiting my blog for the first time, welcome! You can catch up on the pre-plant decisions made for “the corn field by the round crib” in last week’s #FollowTheField post.

For background, our farm grows corn and soybeans, both of which have very similar growing seasons. Because of that, we have a limited amount of time to get everything in the ground. Our farm actually lucked out this year and the farmers were able to get everything in without any rain delays. While rain is very important during the early growth stages, it also hinders field work since farmers can’t bring large equipment into a wet field without causing issues like soil compaction. Actually, if you try planting into a field that is too wet, the seed furrow won’t close properly and that can delay or prevent germination.

To be completely honest, the reason I chose this particular field to follow through the season was because I was home while it was being planted (I live three hours away from the farm). Surprisingly, I found that there’s a lot more to planting than simply picking out a seed variety and getting the planter ready. If you read my last post, you’ll know that the farmers selected the seed varieties for this field way back in the fall. Here’s what happened on the farm this planting season:

  • Field checks. How is a farmer to know whether or not a field is ready to plant unless they actually go out to the field and check? This is actually a really easy process on our farm since the farmers have farmed the same fields for many years and are familiar with what areas might be trouble spots. Things they ask themselves when checking fields include:
    • Is the field dry enough to plant? (Specifically looking in the notorious wet spots.)
    • Are there any areas that should’ve been worked? (As I mentioned in my last post, this particular field is strip-tilled. Many of our fields are no-till or minimally tilled, but sometimes an area needs to be tilled [or “worked”] to reduce soil compaction.)
    • Is the soil warm enough? (Corn won’t germinate unless the soil is a minimum of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The first inch or so deep can fluctuate in temperature depending on the air temperature, so it’s recommended that farmers wait to plant until the soil is 50 degrees at four inches deep. Some years that happens early and other years it happens a bit later, all depending on the weather.)

Field checks typically happen after the weather has warmed up and usually a couple of weeks before the farmers are ready to plant in case any unexpected field work needs to be done. These checks are general enough that the farmers can go out in the field in a Gator or ATV.


Setting up the planter for soybeans after finishing planting corn.

  • Equipment preparation. The planter has been sitting in storage for a year and the tractor hasn’t been used in several months. It’s best to perform equipment maintenance before the planting season starts than to break down in a field during planting. The planter also needs to be calibrated, or set up properly to plant corn.
  • Which crop to plant. I mentioned that our farm grows corn and soybeans, but how do the farmers decide what to plant in each field in a given year? Right now, our farm is mostly on a corn-soybean rotation, which means a field that was corn last year will be soybeans this year and will be corn again next year. The farmers don’t always use a corn-soybean rotation; a few years ago, it was corn-corn-soybeans. We rotate crops on our farm for a number of reasons, including reducing or preventing disease, insect, and weed pressure and to avoid putting all of our eggs in one basket. (I’ll explain more in a future post 🙂 ). This field was soybeans last year, so it’s corn this year. About half of the fields on our farm are corn this year and the other half is soybeans.
  • Planting date. The planting date is entirely dependent upon the weather and the soil temperature (and whether equipment is working). Like I said, the field can’t be too wet and the soil has to be at least 50 degrees. This field was planted on April 18, which is an ideal time to plant corn in central Illinois.

    Field marker

    When we’re not using auto-steer, the marker on the planter makes lines in the field as the tractor goes down a row. In the next pass, the tractor will drive directly over the line to make sure that there aren’t big row gaps between passes. The “arm” down on the left side of the planter is the marker.

  • Row spacing. Believe it or not, a lot of effort goes into making those neat rows of corn you see as you drive by on the highway. The row spacing in this field is 30 inches, which allows plants enough space to grow while maximizing every inch of the field. This is one of the things the farmers are setting up when they calibrate the planter. After the corn is planted, they had to re-calibrate the planter to get ready to plant soybeans, which are planted at a 15-inch row spacing on our farm. That’s one of the reasons all of the corn is planted before they start on soybeans, otherwise they would be wasting a lot of time switching the planter back and forth between crops. Remember in my last post when I said that the nitrogen was applied in 30-inch rows? The farmers used the GIS coordinates from the guy that applied the nitrogen to plant the rows of corn exactly over top the nitrogen so that the seedlings can use as much of the nitrogen as possible.

In the photo below, you can see the ridges from the strip-tilled nitrogen in front of the planter (at the bottom of the picture) and can also see the 30-inch rows of planted corn behind the planter. For this field, only the back row of planter boxes were used. That’s because our planter is a “split-row” planter. When soybeans are planted, all 23 boxes will be in use. The front row of boxes is off-set from the back row, and that’s how the farmers can easily plant 15-inch rows and 30-inch rows with the same piece of equipment. There are 11 boxes in the front row and 12 boxes in the back row. Each box holds seed and plants into one row. We plant corn 12 rows at a time.

Split row planter

  • Population. The number of seeds that go into each row is very important when determining the potential yield of this corn field. This field was planted at a population of 36,500 to 37,000 seeds per acre. This is a 55-acre field, which means there are more than two million corn seeds being planted in this one field! Nearly all of those seeds will grow into mature corn plants, which means that there will be about two million corn plants in this field!! The reason this population was chosen was based on a couple of different factors. The two varieties the farmers chose to plant in this field do well in a higher population, while other varieties might do better in a medium population, or about 35,000 seeds per acre. The other factor was the soil. This field has very good soil and can handle this high of a population and still produce high-yielding plants.

    Corn seed bags

    Our farm goes through quite a few bags of seed corn.

  • Planting depth. Corn on our farm is always planted at 2 inches deep. This is the best depth for proper germination and emergence on our farm. (This really isn’t a decision that requires much thought since it stays the same from year to year.) I mentioned earlier that it isn’t recommended to start planting a field before the soil temperature is 50 degrees at four inches deep. This is where the four inches deep number comes from. Since no planter is absolutely perfect with so many in-field variables, sometimes the corn is planted slightly deeper. Since the soil temps are warm deeper than the two-inch planting depth, the farmer doesn’t have to worry too much about not having a good emergence. The plant roots will also have room to grow in warm soil.

    In the tractor during planting

    There’s a lot going on in the tractor during planting. The two monitors on the right are both tracking the planting population and will let us know if a row stops planting for any reason.

  • Soil insecticide. The farmers decided to apply an insecticide while planting because of an issue with corn rootworm on our farm that could hurt yields later. This insecticide is in a row of boxes behind the active planter boxes that I described earlier. Each of these boxes sprinkle a bit of the insecticide (which comes in a powder form) on top of the row after the corn seeds are planted. The reason the farmers use this insecticide is to kill corn rootworm larvae as they hatch. So corn rootworm beetles from last year fed on last year’s corn and laid their eggs in the neighboring soybean field since they see it as nice and lush. Fortunately, they don’t stray too far into the soybean field to lay their eggs, so the eggs are mostly concentrated on the edge of the soybean field closest to the corn field. Since this field was soybeans last year and the field next door was corn, those corn rootworm eggs are in this field and could hurt this corn crop. The reason for the insecticide now is to stop the problem before it becomes a bigger problem and requires even more insecticide. The product the farmers decided to use costs $15/acre, which can adds up quickly, so the farmers only use the insecticide on the field edge where they think the corn rootworm eggs are. $15 per acre isn’t cheap, but if they guess wrong and end up with a lot of corn rootworms, it can be a very expensive mistake. This is also one reason they rotate crops and consider field notes from last year when making decisions for this year.

Another decision that might need to be made in a couple of weeks is whether replanting is necessary. Sometimes seeds are washed out with heavy rain or seeds don’t germinate and emerge well because of a planting issue, the weather, or another problem. Our farm doesn’t usually have problems that require replanting, but it is possible that the farmers will have to spot replant to fill holes if the conditions are right. This year has been cold and wet since planting, so it’ll be a fairly slow emergence anyway.


I’ll be at home later this week, so keep an eye on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram (@FarmKidBlog) for #FollowTheField plant emergence updates. I was also able to get a lot of great GoPro and drone footage during corn and soybean planting, and I plan to finish up and post the Plant16 video as soon as my class is finished for the semester and I have free time again. 🙂

In the meantime, here’s a clip of the GoPro underneath the planter where all of the action is. This was really cool to see live, since this isn’t a view that we normally see from the tractor. It was kind of surprising to hear how loud it was. More video clips (including some drone footage!) are on my Facebook page.

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