When buying equipment, the mission seems simple: Line up the options, and pick the item with the best reputation and with the most bells and whistles that you can afford.
But planting seed, plugs, and bare root plants are just the first of a long list of tasks you will perform before your vegetables are shipped.
So think through how your operation works the field before choosing which planter and transplanter is right for you.
Planting Basics to Consider
The most common discussion you’ll have with a sales rep is about how many seeds can be planted accurately, and how quickly they can be planted. Your discussion should probably start at a more basic point than that.
Here are few things you should think through:
1. Size of your farm. In the vegetable industry, farm size can have unpredictable issues.
For example, small farms are much more likely to grow a wide array of crops than large farms, American Vegetable Grower’s State of the Vegetable Industry survey shows. Small vegetable farms can grow everything from small-seeded crops like carrots to large-seeded pumpkins. They can grow bare-root sweet potatoes, and strawberries protected with plastic lining/mulch.
When one planter needs to set a wide array of seeds, the technology involved tends to get more sophisticated. You need more than a variety of wheels that determine plant spacing. You need to be sure seed holes work with the wide variety of seeds you’re using. Can they handle both round and oblong seeds? Large and small? If it doesn’t, do you need to upgrade to a planter that uses a vacuum to increase the likelihood that a seed is injected with each pass?
Another factor small farms should consider is if they share equipment with neighboring farms. If you do, you’ll want planting and transplanting machinery that can easily adjust row widths to accommodate everyone.
Large operations want to make planting as efficient as possible, with no double or triple passes over the same row to complete the job. So extras like irrigation and fertilizer applicators will make sense for you.
2. Planting window. The shorter your planting window is, the faster and more accurate your equipment needs to be.
Weather is one of the main culprits of shrinking a viable planting time frame. You may want to take a look at the past 10 years and see how often weather was a major factor, and if your current type of equipment was able to handle the shorter window.
Large farms almost always have a short planting timeframe, since it takes much more time to plant thousands of acres compared to hundreds of acres.
The shorter your timeframe, the more rows you will want to plant at the same time. Consider switching to a 12-row planter (or higher) if you aren’t already doing so.
Hopper and tray capacity is another major factor. The more plugs, bare root plants, and seeds you can pile onto a machine, the fewer times it needs to refilled, and the faster you will plant.
Accuracy will also become a much bigger factor when speed is a top priority. Finding where seeds were doubled up or skipped can be time consuming, as is tracing which plugs and bare root plants were inserted crookedly.
If, on the other hand, you are a small or medium operation that has a wider window for planting, the extra time for irrigation and feeding, for reloading, isn’t a factor, and you can save money with a more stripped-down model.
3. Labor. Labor is an issue for all growers, large and small. And there are no indications that trend will change any time soon.
Transplanters should be considered if you have a hard time securing adequate labor during planting. In some models, the plantings are staggered so workers can steadily plant.
Most of the extras suppliers offer — irrigation, fertilizing, innovations that increase accuracy, and so on — are geared to saving labor. Naturally, labor-saving comes at a price.
Another consideration is how reliable the equipment’s performance is. Does the hopper have a cover to prevent moisture from causing seed to clump?
Does the mechanism to switch row width get stuck? Or do seeds get crushed by moving seed wheels regularly? Does your transplanter enclose the shoe to prevent rocks and debris from damaging the planting mechanism? All of these issues cause time-consuming delays.
Beyond Planting: What Else You Should Think About
Much more is involved with planting. Make sure what you buy works with what you are planning to buy for those tasks.
4. Irrigation and Pest Control. Throughout the season, you will be taking workers and equipment into the field. Where you set the rows in your planting and transplanting equipment will affect how efficient you are with these tasks. Is all of your equipment compatible with the new planter or transplanter?
5. Harvesting. Harvesting equipment is often the most specialized. Is your planting plan forward looking enough that harvesting will be as easy as possible? And does the planter or transplanter you’re considering buying fit within that overall plan?
6. Budget. How much you can spend will include not only what you have on hand, but what you will likely spend in the next few years.
Small operations often have a little more time to plant. So while the farm staff may be limited, if they are able to make multiple passes during planting for irrigation, filling missed plantings, higher-cost extras may not be needed.
But if you have smaller planting windows and more acreage, you may find the extra investment is worth the higher costs.
Another budget factor is to assess your farm’s five-year plan. If you are planning on any significant expansion, your equipment will need to match your future needs, not just your current ones.
Thanks to those who spoke with American Vegetable Grower for this article: Ralph Moore, Market Farm Implement; Grant Allen with Checchi & Magli (C&M); Don Niesh, Monosem; Dan Timmer, Mechanical Transplanter.
And thanks to the guidance given in Penn State’s Fact Sheet: “Selecting the Right Seeding and Transplanting Strategies.”