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October 2008 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.

All For Naught?

Oct 26, 2008
 On a recent service call I came upon a crossroads. In the corner of an adjacent field was a massive concrete cornerpost assembly. There was no fence attached; the two walls of the assembly that met at a 90-degree angle were the only remnants of the old fencelines.

As I drove down the road, every 40 rods there was a smaller though no less impressive concrete wall that had served as a line brace for the long-removed fence. Eventually I came to a pair of even larger concrete braces that bracketed the opening to a lane. The lane was wide, raised above the adjacent fields for drainage, with broad ditches. At the end of the driveway was a huge brick barn with a gabled roof missing large patches of wood shingles, a cluster of oak trees surrounding an empty foundation, and a twisted metal windmill missing its vane assembly.

I've been down that rural road before and that particular mile of road makes me melancholy. At some time in the past century, that farmstead was a showplace. I don't know who owns it now, nor who owned it then, but somebody obviously worked hard to create a legacy for his family. It took time, money and lots of sweat to hand-pour concrete corner and line posts for fences in days before Red-Mix trucks made concrete easier. It took extra work and money to build the barn out of bricks but ensured the building would be there for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The farmer planted oaks around the house, symbols of patience that the slow-growing but durable trees would be there for generations.

Today, the showplace is a windswept inconvenience for the big farmer who now races through the surrounding fields. Was all of the earlier farmer's hard work and dreaming for naught? For unknown reasons the legacy didn't last. Subsequent generations didn't want to farm, didn't have the savvy to keep the operation successful, or made poor choices with the money they inherited. All that's left are a few weather-weary reminders that there once was a farmer with a strong back and a dream.

It makes me melancholy to drive past abandoned farmsteads, that one in particular. I've tried five times to come up with a clever or semi-sage closing to this post, without success. I guess I'll just leave it at, "It makes me melancholy to drive past abandoned farmsteads..."

How Long Should This (Console, Auger, Etc.) Last?

Oct 21, 2008
 I'm frequently asked, "How long should this (farm machinery component) last?" Today it was asked about a GPS satellite receiver that went bad and needed to be replaced. Yesterday morning it was asked about the fountain auger in a combine. Yesterday afternoon a farmer wanted to know how many acres or hours he should expect from the front sprockets on his cornhead gathering chains.

I'm very cautious with my answers to questions about how long components--or entire machines--should last. In the long, agonizing seconds between question-asked and question-answered dozens of considerations swirl through my head, including:

-How many acres does this customer do per year, compared to his neighbor/brother/friend who he always compares repairs and costs with? A customer who does 1000 acres per year with a 6 row combine is going to feel shorted if his equipment wears out faster than his neighbor who only does 500 acres per year, but he shouldn't. 

-What, where and how is the equipment used? Field cultivator sweeps used in sandy bottom ground will wear out faster than similar sweeps used only on loamy higher ground. To promise that every sweep will do "x" number of acres is impossible.

-What does the customer expect, and what does the manufacturer expect? One customer was outraged that his GPS receiver failed after three years. Off the record, a mid-level rep for the manufacturer said that the life expectancy of those receivers was 3 to 5 years. That sounds short, but with technology advancing so rapidly, a 5-year-old GPS receiver probably needs to be updated or replaced simply to keep its technology in line with changes to GPS/auto steering/ row guidance/etc.  How often do you replace TVs or computers in your home...? The same technological and durability lifespan applies to high-tech gizmos on farm equipment.

-How will the machinery be maintained and driven in the field? Normally I expect that bottom gathering chain sprockets, if lubed per specifications, will last one or more seasons. This year, with local cornfields suffering considerable lodging, farmers are running cornheads on the ground and lower sprockets are taking a lot of abuse. It's wrong to fault the sprockets' durability when operating conditions are the cause of "premature" failures.

-What are you comparing to? Older farmers often wax nostalgic about their old 4-row combines that went for years and years without wearing out an auger housing or needing major repairs. They grouse about having to replace components in their new combines after only a few years, but....if questioned, they are often farming 1500 acres with the new combine while the old combine was lucky to cover 500 acres per year. If the grumbling customer is a friend of mine and will accept teasing, I offer to find them an old 4-row combine similar to what they ran 20 years ago so they can do their 1500 acres, "just like in the good old days." So far, nobody has taken me up on the offer.

So, bottom line, there's no single answer to, "How long should this (auger, sprocket, chain, GPS receiver, etc.) last?"  Maybe the best answer is another, somewhat smart-aleck question: "How long can you make it last?"

Get A Grip On Your Checkbook

Oct 11, 2008
 If you haven't yet received the bill for the repair parts you purchased to repair your combine or harvest equipment, make sure you're sitting down when you open the envelope. Cost of some parts has doubled, maybe tripled. The first response is that dealerships are gouging farmers in reaction to last season's high commodity prices. For the most part, that's not the case. Steel prices have risen more than 25 percent in recent months, after several years of steady increases. Rubber products use a lot of petroleum in their manufacture, and we all know what oil prices have done over the past year. As a result, belts, tires and anything that involves rubber is nearly exponentially higher in price. Higher diesel fuel prices have increased shipping costs, and we all know who pays all the incremental costs associated with manufacturing and shipping parts--the farmer.

There's no relief in the visible future. There are sometimes price reductions related to new manufacturing processes that reduce the cost of production of individual parts. And sometimes mainline manufacturers suddenly "find" ways to trim prices when shortline and aftermarket manufacturers come online with generic parts at lower prices. But for now, as you harvest this year's crops and do all the mental math of figuring what you want to do next year---swallow hard and add 50 percent to your repair and maintenance projections for machinery.

Should We Require Licenses to Operate Farm Equipment?

Oct 04, 2008
 Technology in farm equipment, especially related to autosteer/GPS/yield mapping/swath control has reached the point where some people have great difficulty understanding and operating it. 

I take that back---most of the new technologies are easy to operate once they're set up and functioning properly. Push a button, trip a switch, and the computers take over and all the operator has to do is sit and ride. What is challenging to understand is the calibration and set-up of the latest and greatest automated systems. Early autosteer systems needed only basic info about swath width and then it was good to go. The latest generation of autosteer systems can follow contours and compensate for equipment side-draft, but requires all sorts of calibration and programmed information about yaw, centerline, offsets, height of the GPS receiver off the ground, etc., etc. Once the correct info is entered, the systems work great...

Until something gets out of whack and the operator has to enter diagnostic mode and figure out what's wrong. Are all the sensors getting correct voltage? Are all the sensors returning correct signal voltage? Maybe the machine was moved to another farm or field, and the new farm/field data wasn't entered correctly. What if the yield mapping system is recording inaccurate moisture content of the grain--is it a software problem or a merely related to the clump of foxtail lodged in the moisture sensor? if the operator doesn't understand what to do, where to look, or how to check, the system is non-functional and useless.

Yes, that's one reason dealerships have mechanics and technical advisors: to help with technical questions and to fix mechanical problems. But there comes a point where it's not cost effective to call the dealership and pay a mechanic to come out every single time there's a calibration, programming or diagnostic problem on high tech equipment. 

At a recent regional training meeting for tech advisors and mechanics, one mechanic commented, tongue-in-cheek, that there may come a time when customers will have to take an "technological operator's test" before being allowed to operate high-tech gizmos for farm equipment. In his words, "If they don't have the patience to figure out how to run it, or the ability to read the owner's manual to set it up or do basic diagnostics, then they're going to have to farm the old-fashioned way and steer their own equipment."  It was a rude, rather snotty statement made in jest, but none of the folks in attendance laughed.
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