Sacrificing yield and bottom-line performance aren’t options for the Boender family, especially with current and projected commodity prices. According to a recent USDA report, the average U.S. corn price for 2015/2016 is forecast at $3.50 a bushel vs. $3.65 for 2014/2015. The 2015/2016 soybean price was put at $9 per bushel vs. $10.20 for 2014/2015.

Slimming profit margins mean the Oskaloosa, Iowa, farmers carefully assess every aspect of their operation to determine how technology can play a role. Better managing down pressure for even emergence and stand was at the top of their list.  

“When I’m in the cab, downforce is the number one thing I have the least amount of control over,” says BJ Boender, who is in charge of the family’s John Deere 1790 planter. “I could adjust the air bag system on the go, but I couldn’t adjust it as fast as I needed to. When I look at our maps, it’s clear I’m getting too much downforce in some areas and not enough in others. I want a picket fence on our planting.”

Too much weight on the gauge wheels meant roots were getting compacted. With too little weight, seeds were too close to the surface. Both were affecting yield.

“While it definitely provides a better seed environment than non-automated systems, the air bag system can sometimes take up to 20 seconds to respond to differing field conditions,” explains Nathen Deppe, precision ag specialist with CENTROL Precision Ag. “Across a field with varying soil types like the Boenders have, that system is continually trying to catch up because it takes time for those air bags to inflate and deflate. This causes inconsistent seed depth or unnecessary soil compaction.”

A fundamental of planting, good downforce management is a critical aspect of operating a planter well. “It has equal advantage in terms of pushing variety selection,” notes Matt Darr, associate professor, Iowa State University.

Yet, planters are one of the more complex pieces of machinery in agriculture. “As the size of planters has grown and the speed at which you drive them has increased, every new technology, like better singulation, simply pushes stress somewhere else in the system,” says Darr. “As you fix problems elsewhere, downforce is now an even more critical issue to manage and pay attention to, particularly if you have variable soils.”

With planting, you have one chance to get it right, says Deppe. “What we learned with load pins and then the air bag system is that it still wasn’t good enough. We were getting closer to where we wanted to be about 85% of the time, but we were still off by 15%,” he says.
Converting to a hydraulic system

After evaluating current planter technology and looking at their farming practices and past yield data, Deppe made two recommendations to improve that seed-to-soil contact:
• Precision Planting’s vDrive: electric drive with turn compensation
• Precision Planting’s DeltaForce: hydraulic downforce that is controlled independently per row

Based on present and future tillage practices and the fact that they had an interplant planter, the Boenders chose to go with the DeltaForce system. “It’s hard to measure the right downforce in the field. Soils are highly dynamic and diverse. The need for downforce is diverse across those different soils, and, ultimately, it’s not something you can measure. It’s something you have to get out and dig and have a feel for,” says Darr. “Hydraulic downforce has the opportunity to take many of those complexities away and make it a little easier for the Boenders’ planter to adapt to the environment.”

Because DeltaForce reacts in five milliseconds after it takes each load pin reading. Since it can make a full adjustment in one fifth of a second, accuracy jumps dramatically. “Downforce is going to be right 98% of the time,” notes Deppe. “We are really slimming the margin on having shallow planting depth because we’re not putting enough weight on the gauge wheels or having compaction because we’re adding too much weight.”

Evaluating ROI

In the last few years, precision ag products have certainly grown in adoption. “We’ve seen it with auto steer and section control being used on the majority of acres in the Midwest,” says Darr. “Downforce is not to that level yet. This technology is a step below some of the more adopted technologies. I think part of that goes back to the uncertainty around return on investment and the complexity of it in terms of application.”

To evaluate the agronomic and economic benefits of DeltaForce, Successful Farming magazine has asked Darr, along with On-Farm Network’s Nathan Paul, to calculate return on investment as well as performance through field trials.

For 2015, half of the planter was converted to hydraulic downforce. In 2016, the technology will be implemented across the entire planter. See the story on page 53 for details on the two-year project.

“I think this study will help you understand the potential value this technology could have in an operation,” notes Darr. 

If you’re trying to determine whether or not hydraulic downforce is right for you, Darr says it’s important to compartmentalize the financial vs. risk aspect. 

“Risk isn’t something we talk a lot about in terms of machinery selection and decision making,” he says. “As we think about the suite of precision ag technologies that are out there today, there will be opportunities in certain years to have significant financial impact, but maybe not every year. If you have a dry year and really consistent soils, you may not see as much of a benefit as a grower with more diverse soils will see.”

There is still value in risk management. “For example, if others are helping you plant, technology like hydraulic downforce reduces risk,” Darr says.

Two scenarios

With help from their precision ag specialist, Nathen Deppe of CENTROL Precision Ag, the Boenders looked at two scenarios to improve down force. 

“I made the recommendation for Precision Planting’s vDrive (electric drive with turn compensation) or Precision Planting’s DeltaForce (hydraulic downforce that is controlled independently per row),” says Deppe. “The investment for DeltaForce is about $1,500 to $1,700 per row; vDrive would cost around $1,000 to $1,200 per row.”

Because the Boenders’ planter is set up for 30-inch rows for corn and 15-inch rows for beans, it added to the cost due to the electronic structure. They chose DeltaForce for two reasons. 

“First, the Boenders were looking to do more no-till/minimum-till, and the DeltaForce system allows them to achieve a better stand by controlling the amount of force needed to maintain the proper seeding depth without applying too much down pressure and compacting the seed trench leading to yield loss,” explains Deppe. 

“Second, the Boenders have an interplant planter,” he continues. “If they went with vDrive, they would have to add it to the bean rows. There hasn’t been enough research done to prove a return on adding vDrive to bean rows. Going with DeltaForce allowed them to put the system on the corn rows and to get the best return on investment possible.”


For the 2015 planting season, half of their John Deere 1790 planter was outfitted with DeltaForce. The other half of the planter utilized air bags. Load pins were added across the entire planter so weight was measured on every single row.

Hydraulic downforce will be installed across the entire planter in 2016.

About the Boenders

The Boender operation consists of father Steve, his five sons, BJ, Karl, Kurt, Mark, and Mike, and daughter Becky. Each family member has a specific role to play. The Oskaloosa, Iowa, family has been farming for more than three decades and grows corn, soybeans, and alfalfa.
The family also operates Boender Custom Farming. 

Steve and wife Jan have encouraged all of their children to find their voice in agriculture. “We allow and encourage individual family independence within the operation,” notes Steve. 

Meet the Smart Farm team

To help the Boenders determine whether or not downforce is a worthwhile investment, Successful Farming magazine assembled a team of experts who will have a specific role in the two-year project.

Nathen Deppe, manager, CENTROL Precision Ag

Working with the Boender family for nearly two years, Nathen Deppe’s role is to not only evaluate what the operation’s technology needs are but also to understand their business goals – both short and long term. As he sat down with the Oskaloosa, Iowa, family this past winter, one area identified centered around the planter. Basically, it was where the machine was falling short and how precision ag technology tools could help.

“We feel the planter is the most important piece of equipment on the farm because that’s where it all starts. It’s also why we really emphasize adding technology to a planter,” says Deppe. “Your yield isn’t going to get any better from the time the seed is planted. After that point, you’re just trying to manage it.”

Deppe and his team will be instrumental in installing the technology and ensuring that it runs properly during planting.

Matt Darr, associate professor, Iowa State University

As with any investment, especially technology, it has to pencil out. Matt Darr’s role will be calculating the return on investment.

“When we talk about hydraulic downforce, the return on investment is harder to measure. We have been engaged in developing the test plan and how we are going to set the machinery up so we can measure a true dollar-per-acre payback for hydraulic downforce technology,” explains Darr. 
“In this case, we believe return on investment comes from two things,” he continues. “First, if you’re in highly variable soils – soils that have a lot of no-till situations or harder soils as opposed to ones that are softer or have more likelihood for higher water-holding capacity – then you have a higher need to vary downforce across those fields. We hope to measure that directly with this partnership.”

Second is risk management. “If you have more than one planter and you have a couple people driving your planter to get the corn in the ground as it travels across more and more acres, you have more need to change the downforce. For some producers, return on investment is simply in risk management by taking out the decision-making process from that operator in terms of what the right spring setting is,” notes Darr.

Determining return on investment is done a few different ways. “Obviously, we are trying to get to a bushel-per-acre increase,” he explains. “Is there a cash increase based on the sale of that product? Does that overcome the cost of adopting the technology? We’ll take a suite of technologies, including aerial imagery and the yield monitor, to document that return on investment.”

Nathan Paul, operations manager, On-Farm Network

Nathan Paul will develop a trial design and protocol to gather data on how well the technology performed. The On-Farm Network will process and analyze the data from 10 replicated strip trials. All strips will be recorded with GPS. A yield monitor equipped with GPS will be used to measure and record yields. Aerial imagery will be collected near the end of the season to detect any visible physiological differences in the canopy between the treatments. Factors such as grain yield, grain moisture, and combine speed will be recorded across all treatments.

A four-page report for each trial will be created based on the processed and analyzed data, which will include yield comparisons between systems. 

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