Farmers, Ag Industry Professionals Reap Dividends from Planter University


March 26, 2024, 9:38 am | Chris Kick

AMES, Iowa – Planting season varies wildly from year to year and technology is always changing. Cool and wet conditions can dramatically delay planting. When soil conditions are remarkably dry, getting seed in the soil at the correct depth is a challenge. But just as each planting season is different, so too are the decisions for optimizing the planting technology.

Farmers and ag industry professionals who spend a day indoors learning to optimize their machinery for conditions in the field are reaping dividends – for their own operations, their communities, and Iowa. When they participate in Planter University, they consider their time well spent and they anticipate greater planting efficiency and farm profitability.

Two people examine parts on a seed planter.“This was the best planter clinic I’ve been to, period,” wrote one participant. “The agronomic background, along with the machinery knowledge and relating them together was spot on. This class made every person more money.”

The Digital Ag Innovation Team at Iowa State University partnered with ISU Extension and Outreach field agronomists and ag engineers to create this hands-on program that offers unbiased, brand-neutral training to farmers and ag industry professionals. It’s offered at five locations across Iowa, all indoors, with planter demonstrations and presentations that evolve with the technology.

Participants learn how to make adjustments in the field, evaluate and calibrate their equipment, and obtain maximum planter performance. They gain insights into how seedbed conditions and preparation affect planter row unit performance. They also gain a better understanding of the data today’s planters can generate and how to use that data on their farms.

First offered in 2022, Planter University has seen continued success, with more than 400 people attending in the first two years. Initial participant surveys showed a value of greater than $5 per acre gained from attending. When spread over time and acres across the state, small improvements have the potential for high-dollar impacts.

With an average of 13 million acres planted to corn and 10 million acres planted to soybean each year, Iowa is a national leader in both crops. Farmers, Iowa’s energy and fiber industries, and the state’s agricultural economy depend on crop production.

Meaghan Anderson.“Being able to put complex machinery to work on the farm is critical to the success of growers and the agricultural economy,” said Meaghan Anderson, field agronomist with ISU Extension and Outreach.

Surveys conducted in 2022 and 2023 showed a significant increase in participants who felt “extremely confident” in making planter adjustments based on soil conditions or other factors. In a follow-up survey after planting, nearly 70% replaced worn items on their planter as a result of the workshop, and half said they evaluated or performed more thorough maintenance on their planter prior to the start of planting season.

“With Planter University, we offer a low-pressure learning environment,” said Ben Covington, an agricultural engineer at Iowa State. “We’re not trying to sell the farmer any parts or widgets or anything like that. We’re just here to give them the information they need.”

“Our goal with this program is to teach farmers how to use this new technology the best way possible on their own acres,” said agricultural engineer Levi Powell. “The fundamentals are the same across all brands, so we want to help them make the best decisions for their own operations.”

Past attendees say they have gained valuable skills that are improving their farms and their understanding of planting technology and have learned new concepts that allow them to make informed decisions. In addition, they are sharing the lessons learned with others, creating a multiplier effect and spurring interest in future programs.

“With this technology and the way that these planters work, there is always something new to learn,” said Anderson. “And that's one of the great things about our digital ag team at Iowa State – they’re learning and sharing new things every year.”

For example, in 2024, Planter University participants could dig furrows indoors – using four portable soil bins and a row unit machine. The bins represented different field conditions with associated agronomic and yield data.

“This really helped bring everything full circle for the participants,” Powell said. “When we cover the details of planter settings, they can see the furrows and dig in them, and the impact on yield that those planter settings or issues can have.”

“We see people at Planter University who come back for not just one year, but in some cases two years, so that they can continue to gather that information, learn more and make the appropriate adjustments for every planting season,” Anderson said.

Shareable photo: Doug Houser, digital agriculture extension specialist (left), engages with a participant from Planter University.

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