Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles involving following a crop of soybeans from seed to harvest. The author is visiting a farmer and field in Tampa every four to six weeks and learning both general facts about farming and specific facts about a crop of soybeans. Follow along on the journey and learn with this city girl about how it all works.
Derek Belton has always wanted to be a farmer. He grew up in Tampa, farming along with his father, and now he helps him, neighbor and fellow farmer David Mueller, and also farms his own land.
“Even when I went to college and then worked at a job for a while, I was still farming on the side,” he said.
Several weeks ago, he finished harvesting his wheat and turned around to start planting his soybeans and Mueller’s.
While many farmers are often nervous to share their secrets of the trade, Belton and Mueller both were more than willing to explain the process of planting. Mueller gave the history lessons and a tour while Belton showed off his tractor and planter, and both explained how it all works. Belton uses the planter to do his field and Mueller’s.
Before explaining the process, he took out a soybean, which is about the size of a pea, for a frame of reference.
“In a good year, which means if there is rain, one soybean will make approximately 200 to 300 soybeans, and we are planting about 120,000 seeds per acre,” said Belton.
The soybeans are put into the big hopper portion of the planter. The planter then blows the seeds from the big hopper to the little hoppers. As the level gets down, it will self fill it. It’s all automated.
“I don’t control or do anything until the monitor shows me it’s not planting properly or I’m out of seed,” said Belton. “You hope you don’t have to get out of the tractor. You hope everything’s going fine, but on a good day, yeah, occasionally it happens.”
“Derek is just there to fix everything and turn the tractor around on the ends,” said Mueller.
The air pressure causes the soybeans to fill circular plates with the soybeans, and then vacuum pressure sucks them in and keeps them in place. The technology keeps the plates filled so that they can travel down and be placed into the holes in the ground that the planter digs.
The holes are dug one and three-quarters inches deep. The seed is dropped in, and then the dirt is filled back in. The holes are two and one-quarter inches apart exactly. Each seed is perfectly spaced—all while the tractor and planter are traveling at about 6 to 6.2 miles per hour.
“We’ve come a long way in 20 years. They’re very complex. But the concept is the same it’s always been. It’s just the planter is so much more automated. Efficient. Precise,” he said.
Mueller and Belton explained that with an older planter from 20 to 30 years ago, the spacing would be uneven.
“You don’t want a foot gap, because you’re losing that production. And you don’t want two right next to each other, because they won’t let each other thrive. They’ll be competing; all those efficiencies bring higher production efficiency, and production brings greater return. So then that adds to the value of having a more expensive plant planter,” said Mueller. :It cuts down on your risk, because you have your seed precisely placed.”
Depth is also important to consider. With older planters, depth would often be uneven, but with more modern planters, depth can be more precise. This reduces risk and increases productivity and efficiencies.
Belton’s planter and tractor are not even the newest on the market but are newer.
“This is 10-year-old technology. Planter technology is about like computer technology—it’s already out of date by the time you get it out of the store. But it’s an economic thing. What can you afford to own and run?” asked Belton.
The computer inside the tractor controls his planter. He gets in and turns on the motors that control the vacuum that fills the plates holding the soybeans.
“I can actually spin that meter so that it will fill up so that I don’t have a gap when I start. As soon as it gets going, it has straight lines and can immediately start planting. It will start planting automatically when we cross the line from the other so it doesn’t double plant. The computer counts the seeds per row,” said Belton.
On a good day, the farmer will mostly sit in the air- conditioned cab and ride along, only having to watch the speed and levels on the computer, adjusting things here and there, and steering on the ends. In fact, sometimes things go so smoothly that they have to find ways to fill the long days—8 or 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.—with podcasts, shows, movies, audiobooks, smartphones, etc. But other times, they are busy trouble-shooting anything from a certain level getting too low to a chunk of something plugging up the hopper, a line coming loose, a vacuum getting loose, a plate just spinning with no vacuum or more.
But the farmer is there to figure it out. And both Mueller and Belton seem to love the work on both the good days and the bad ones.