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Active downforce systems could be a good investment

Article cover photo
If farmers have experienced inconsistent seed emergence, investing in an active downforce system for their planter may be a solution. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Scott Nelson, On-Farm Network® Director

An active downforce system on a planter varies the downforce pressure in response to planting conditions, which could bring more uniform and consistent seed emergence. This is different from typical spring force systems, which provide uniform downforce pressure across the field.

Active downforce systems can be costly, and farmers need to know whether they will achieve a profitable return before making the investment.

To answer whether an active down force system is appropriate, there are some basic principles that first need to be understood. Three things every planter must do are:

  1. meter seed at the optimum population,
  2. space the seed as uniformly as possible, and
  3. achieve adequate and uniform planting depth without compaction.

Too much downforce pressure results in compaction and seed can be placed too deep. Too little downforce pressure results in shallow planting and uneven emergence. Numerous studies have shown that shallow planted soybeans and corn will put the crop at a significant yield disadvantage.

For farmers who have encountered significant differences in stand uniformity or struggle with shallow planting, an active downforce system could be a solution. 

There is not a wealth of independent information available on the value of these systems. One study, conducted at The Ohio State University, compared an active downforce system to a spring downforce system. The spring system had significantly greater variability in planting depth and emergence time compared to the active downforce system. The result was a 10-bushel yield advantage for the active downforce system. One should not expect this dramatic of a response in every field, but this highlights the potential for downforce systems in eliminating uneven emergence. 

The On-Farm Network® team at the Iowa Soybean Association gathered some general comments from farmers who have adopted active downforce systems:

  • If your fields are all uniform, the odds of seeing a profitable response are much lower.
  • In no-till conditions, the system is a good investment. No-till fields can be highly variable with unequal residue distribution and soil hardness. Thus, the ability to actively vary downforce pressure in these conditions could be profitable.
  • Focusing attention to good planter operation and optimum meter performance take priority. Unless the planter is tuned to optimized performance, an investment in active downforce systems will not pay.
  • There is a wide variety of active downforce systems in the market, ranging from hydraulic to pneumatic. The hydraulic systems respond faster to varying field conditions. Before investing in a system, carefully consider all the options available.

Matt Darr, professor in the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department at Iowa State University, has conducted research on these systems.

“Active downforce is like insurance. Some years you need it and some years you don’t,” he said. “It helps with depth uniformity at higher planting speeds and in variable conditions. The value is more around the convenience of changing the downforce from field to field over a mechanical system, which is rarely adjusted.” 

Some universities will be publishing more data on the value of active downforce systems in the future. The On-Farm Network will provide updates on this work as it becomes available. Farmers who have questions or comments about active downforce systems, can email us at: research@iasoybeans.com.

Scott Nelson can be reached at: snelson@iasoybeans.com.

For media inquiries, please contact Katie Johnson, ISA Public Relations Manager at kjohnson@iasoybeans.com or Aaron Putze, ISA Communications Director at aputze@iasoybeans.com

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at aputze@iasoybeans.com. Iowa Soybean Association | 1255 SW Prairie Trail Pkwy | Ankeny | IA | 50023 | US

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