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September 2011 Archive for In the Shop

RSS By: Dan Anderson, Farm Journal

As a farm machinery mechanic and writer, Dan brings a hands-on approach that only a pro can muster. Along with his In the Shop blog, Dan writes a column by the same name as well as the Shop Series for Farm Journal magazine. Always providing practical information, he is a master at tackling technical topics and making them easy for all of our readers to understand. He and his wife, Becky, live near Bouton, Iowa.

An Ugly Secret Revealed

Sep 28, 2011

 I got "caught" yesterday. I was repairing a soybean platform, making a repair on a component I'd never had to repair. The customer was helping. The various pieces had to come apart in a certain sequence, then go back together not only in exact reverse sequence, but with certain of the pieces timed and indexed to achieve a specific alignment.

It took me three tries to get things put together right. Each time I goofed, I had to take it apart and start all over again. Even now, having done it three times, I'm not sure I could do it correctly in one try. I was annoyed, the customer was amused, but we finally got it together and working correctly.

The previous day, I tore apart a big, complicated variable-drive system and put it together in record time. Used several shortcuts that saved time, and would have looked like a genius if anybody had been around to watch. 

The difference between the two repairs was that I've rebuilt dozens of variable drives, but repaired that specific component on a soybean platform only once. Mechanics may have special tools and enough experience to make lots of different repairs, but we don't inherently know how to fix everything that breaks. There are more than a few times that we're guessing or working "blind."

So if you're working on equipment, fixing something that doesn't want to be fixed and feeling a little overwhelmed...take a deep breath and proceed as a professional mechanic would: Draw sketches or take cell phone photos of things before you disassemble them; mark or number parts and lay them out in sequence as you remove them; practice-fit things together before assembly whenever possible; and, when things go awry and you can't put it back together correctly -- find a tech book or another mechanic to offer guidance. 

I'll never be so bold as to say that anything can be fixed, because there are some things that just plain need to be replaced. But with patience, pluck and a big enough hammer, a person can give it a serious try.

In The Shop: Fixing Things That Aren't Broke

Sep 25, 2011

 Nothing makes a mechanic's shoulders sag faster than a customer who has a machine with intermittent mechanical problems: "Sometimes the feederhouse won't turn on when I push the button." "Two or three times a day the transmission jumps a gear." "The planter's marker arm only works about half the time."

The customer wants his malfunctioning machine fixed. But a mechanic can't fix something if it's not malfunctioning at the time he's near the machine. Modern machines, with computers that record system malfunctions for later recall, sometimes provide mechanics hints of what the problem is, but the best way to diagnose a malfunctioning machine is still to be there and see, hear and feel what's going wrong while it's going wrong.

If you have a machine with come-and-go mechanical problems, ask yourself each time the machine mysteriously malfunctions, "What changed?" Is there a pattern to the problem? Does it happen only when turning at the end of the field, raising to go across waterways, maybe only when going uphill or downhill? Does the problem occur in heavy crop or only in thin areas of crop? Dumb as it may sound, were you sitting differently in the seat, were you talking on the cell phone or FM radio, or what time of day was it?

All those small things can help a mechanic figure out the problem. "Dumb things" can make a big difference--some cell phones and FM radios cause interference with electrical systems. Or, there are certain times of year at certain times of day when the sun's angle in the sky, sunspot activity and other astronomical phenomena can make GPS and radio-based systems go freaky. Weird circumstances can make machines do weird things.

I once spent several years trying to diagnose a mysterious glitch in a combine that only occurred in one narrow band in one specific field. Whenever that combine was in that area of that field, the slow shaft speed warning lights would intermittently go on and off--mostly on. There were no mechanical malfunctions in the machine, and the farmer and I eventually agreed that specific area of the field was haunted. Years later I ran across an aeronautical map that showed the zones and paths of radar for the airport in a large city near that field. Lo and behold, the radar beam that guides commercial airplanes to the main runway at that airport passes directly over the area of the farmer's field where the combine's sensors always went goofy. 

Was that the cause of the malfunction? Could a high-intensity radar or radio signal trigger malfunctions in a combine's electrical system? I'll never know for sure. But it taught me to always think outside the proverbial box when it comes to diagnosing intermittent, odd, or unexplainable malfunctions in machinery.

In The Shop: Tools You Should Have

Sep 18, 2011

 You have tools in your toolbox that I don't have in mine, and I have tools in my toolbox that you don't have in yours. I have little use when repairing farm equipment for fencing pliers, fence stretchers or other livestock or farm maintenance tools. I have specialty tools dedicated for specific models of machines that would be a waste of money for a farmer to own. But if I was to give up the glamorous job of farm equipment mechanic and become a full-time farmer, there are a few tools that I would definitely bring along.

I'd definitely bring some air tools: air wrenches of various sizes, and definitely an air hammer. As a farmer I might use an air hammer only two or three times a year, but those two or three times would be worth the price of the air hammer. If I used an air hammer only once a year, with a chisel bit to remove rivets that hold the poly plastic to the bottom of a soybean platform and a riveting bit to install new rivets and plastic, it would be worth the other 364 days a year the air hammer lays in my toolbox. 

A voltmeter would definitely be part of my tool inventory if I farmed. I like being able to determine not only WHERE voltage is, but HOW MUCH voltage is there. 

Yes, it would be redundant to have battery-powered impact wrenches if I have air-powered tools, but battery-powered tools are SO handy and save so much time when compressed air isn't available that I'm willing to pay the price of that redundancy.

I'd obviously have to bring along my basic metric and standard wrenches and sockets. My assortment of hammers and pry bars would be part of the inventory. There are a few specialty tools designed for specific makes and models of machines I could sacrifice, if I was confident I would never work on those machines on my own farm--and there are definitely certain makes and models of machines that would never turn a tire on MY farm.

The final two tools that would definitely make a transition would be my little pocket screwdriver and the high-intensity, LED flashlight I keep in my shirt pockets. I feel naked without them. I've been known to paw my pockets, groping for one of those essential tools, when my wife and I out on a night on the town. If she keeps dragging me to dimly-lit restaurants where I can't see well enough to read the menu, I may resort to carrying the pocket flashlight. 

In The Shop: Things To Check On Combines

Sep 11, 2011

 Some of you are well into harvest, others are on the verge. When prepping combines for harvest or maintaining combines during harvest, don't focus on the "big stuff" so much that you overlook less obvious components.

On older machines everybody worries about worn rasp bars and concaves. Don't overlook the feederhouse floor, feederhouse transition seal and concave sill door. Everything that goes through the concave goes over those high-wear components. If during harvest you see strange strings of grain on the ground from directly below the center of the machine---check those areas for holes.

On newer machines, check the floor of the transition that feeds into the rotor. Check "elephant ears" on the front of the rotor for wear. 

On grain tanks, tap on the sheet metal of sump areas associated with the vertical unloading auger housing. Tap on the sheet metal underside of grain tank cross auger troughs where they empty into the unloading auger sump. If the sheet metal is worn enough to dimple or dent when you tap it lightly with a small hammer--there will be grain leaking through a hole before harvest is over if you don't fix it now.

The other frequent culprit to grain losses due to wear is in the area of the clean grain elevator lower housing. Check for worn sheet metal on the auger housing that feeds into that elevator, as well as the lower end of the elevator itself.

And, if you find yourself leaving occasional piles of partially threshed beans or half-shelled ears of corn in the middle of each swath (as did a frustrated customer who called me to his combine last year because, "the darn thing won't clean the cobs..."), check to make sure you closed the rock trap door before you started combining.

In The Shop: Prepping Your Head For Harvest

Sep 04, 2011

The mental aspect of harvest is more important than ever during this year's harvest. In a story in the September issue of "Farm Journal Magazine" about minimizing grain loss during harvest, Jeff Gray of Claas Lexion notes that farmers tend to target ground speed with their combines rather than optimum yield. During interviews for the story he commented that driving a combine is an "active" job, and not merely sitting and steering while maintaining a consistent 4 or 5 miles an hour.

He noted that modern combines equipped with computers that control ground speed to optimize threshing and minimize grain losses frequently speed up or slow down as they churn through fields. That's because optimum combine performance is a complex interaction between crop yield, crop condition, combine engine rpm and combine ground speed. Crop yields vary across a field; engine rpm must be maintained, leaving ground speed as the variable the operator has to "adjust" changes in yield. 

So. One of the biggest challenges for combine operators is to mentally prepare themselves to actively operate their combines. Steve Luther, assistant field manager for Stine Seed Company, oversees five combines that harvest more than 10,000 acres of precious seed beans and seed corn each fall. Luther says there's a difference between a combine "driver" and a combine "operator." "A combine driver sits, steers, and listens to the radio," says Luther. "A combine operator is constantly watching the grain loss monitor system, listening to the machine, watching the way crop is feeding in, watching the quality of grain in the tank--he's working at running that machine."

Gray, with Claas Lexion, also noted the difference between a combine driver and a combine operator. According to him, combine operators leave less than 1 percent of total grain yield in the field, while combine drivers can leave more than 2 to 5 percent of potential profit lying in the dirt. Two percent of corn yielding 150 bushels per acre is 3 bushels per acre. With March corn prices tickling the $8/bu. mark, that's $24/acre of pure profit left in the field. 

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