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April 2009 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.

Making Sense of Seed Monitors

Apr 25, 2009
 Got a seed monitor that's beeping and flashing a warning? Here are a few steps to diagnose the problem and return peace and quiet to your tractor cab.

-First step, and always the first step, is to prove whether the seed monitor is telling the truth. Either dig behind that row for seeds, or tip the seed box forward and manually turn the seed meter drive for that row to see if seeds are dropping from the meter. If digging or mechanically spinning the seed meter proves the sensor is sending a false warning, then...

-Swap the seed tube and sensor from the failed row with the tube and sensor from an adjacent row. If the "failed" warning switches to the adjacent row when you return to planting, the sensor that consistently shows "failed" is the culprit and needs to be replaced.

-If you switch seed tubes and sensors, but the problem stays with the original row, check the seed monitor wiring for that row. Disconnect wiring connectors related to that row and check for greenish corrosion on pins inside the connectors.

-If more than one row shows "failed," note if all the failed rows are on one side of the machine,  all in the middle, or share a branch of the main wiring harness. If so, be suspicious that segment of harness got pinched where the planter folds, or flexes near the hitch.

-If multiple rows show "failed" and wiring harnesses all check out okay, realize that a single failed seed tube sensor can cause other sensors on that circuit to show "failed." All sensors share a single ground circuit (black wire) and a single power circuit (red wire). If one sensor fails in a way that shorts its ground circuit or power circuit, then all the sensors on that shared circuit may turn up as failed. Diagnose that not-infrequent problem by unplugging all the seed tube sensors that show "failed", then experiment with plugging them back into the system, one by one. When the system again goes bonkers, the latest sensor plugged in is the culprit.

-If the entire seed monitor/console goes dead, think "Loss of power." Look for a blown in-line fuse in the harness that powers the seed monitor, or a blown fuse in the tractor circuit that provides power to the monitor. Be aware that many tractors have more than one circuit and therefore more than one fuse for accessory outlets and cigarette lighters/power sources in their cabs.

-If you can't find the problem yourself and need a dealership mechanic to visit the machine, note any warning codes and numbers that popped up on the seed monitor display. The codes and numbers might give the mechanic hints on what spare parts to bring, and how to diagnose the problem.

More Is Not Always Better

Apr 19, 2009
 Is it a "guy thing" that we always take things too far? Tell a farmer to torque a bolt to 100 pound-feet and he'll always twist it to 110 lb.ft.  Give a farmer a way to firm soil around fresh-planted seed and he will leave the seeds in the black dirt-equivalent of a paved parking lot.

Corn planting is maybe 25 percent complete in our area, and once again I'm finding a lot of planters with the gauge wheel down pressure settings too heavy and the closing wheel down pressure handles one notch too strong. Soil conditions are wet and cool. When I dig behind planters with my little pocket screwdriver I often flip up chunks of packed dirt the size of golf balls. On a sunny day there are smooth, shiny strips alongside the closing wheel marks, where the seed unit gauge wheels have pressed so firmly against the soil that they've left packed strips. And the marks from the closing wheel tires are an inch or more deep, with a one-inch or higher ridge of soil squeezed up between them.

The only reason for down pressure on seeding units is to keep the units from bouncing as they move across tilled fields, or in no-til fields where the disk openers need a little help in slicing into the undisturbed soil. Any additional down force applied by gauge wheels packs the dirt alongside the seed furrow and makes it difficult for seedling roots to grow normally. Closing wheels should merely pinch the seed furrow closed---packing the soil over seeds complicates seedling shoot emergence. 

There are no discrete recommendations on pounds/square foot of down pressure, or which notch in the adjuster to use. It all depends on the soil in each field. But in general, with the planter lowered and in planting position, you should be able to twist a guage wheel 1/4 turn, with effort. If you can turn it easily you need to increase down pressure. If you can't turn it at least 1/4 turn, you've got too much down pressure on that row unit. Closing wheel down pressue should be just enough to close the seed furrow. Deep closing wheel tracks or a high center ridge hint of too much down pressure.

A definitive test is to dig. In an unplanted part of the field, dig to planting depth. Note how hard you have to dig and the consistency of the soil at seeding depth. Compare that to the soil around seeds you have just planted. The planting process will naturally firm the soil to some degree, but if you have to dig and jab to get down to seed depth, and the soil pops out in chunks, then it's time to control your testosterone and take a kinder, gentler approach to setting your planter.

Scroll to the bottom of this post for a photographic example of the effects of too much down pressure.

In this photo of knee-high corn, the wall of the over-compacted seed furrow is still visible as the vertical surface marked by the screwdriver. Note that all the critical primary seedling roots are running parallel with the seed furrow--they haven't been able to penetrate the compacted seed furrow wall.  All the moisture and fertility between the rows is unavailable to that plant, due to too much down pressure on the planter's row unit gauge wheels.

48-Row Planter: The Daisy-Chain Effect

Apr 14, 2009
A prototype 48-row planter is running in our territory this spring. I spent a day or two last week getting it ready for the field. Aside from being tired and leg-weary from simply walking back and forth and around the mega-machine, I was struck by the unexpected challenges that complicate things when farmers move to bigger or more high-tech equipment. For example:

-The 48-row planter uses multiple hydraulic motors to drive the seed units, along with multiple hydraulic motors to run the vacuum system. There's also a hydraulic motor to drive the fan that pressurizes the seed hoppers. Add the requirements of all the hydraulic cylinders required to simply raise and lower the 120-foot wide beast on the end rows, and it takes a hefty hydraulic system on the tractor to make it work. We've learned that many older tractors built before 2000 don't have the hydraulic capacity to keep up with even 16-row planters, especially if those planters use hydraulic seed drive systems (variable rate drives).

-Modern tractor cabs often look like Mission Control with all the consoles and displays required to control and monitor various high-tech systems. Seed population monitors, starter fertilizer controllers, frame-fold control boxes, GPS/Auto steer displays and processors, variable-pressure down-pressure controllers, rear-view cameras, variable-height row cleaner controllers--not to mention the all-important cell phone chargers, FM business and CB radios, and satellite radio receivers--all put an extra load on tractor electrical systems. Then there' s the potential for strange electrical fields generated by the bird's nest of wiring harnesses and cables crammed beside and behind the seat. Things can get interesting if the GPS/autosteer system gets confused and starts using signals from the satellite radio to steer the tractor through the field, especially if the hired man is listening to Metallica's live version of "Enter Sandman" to stay awake while he plants during the midnight shift.

-Huge equipment forces farmers to rethink basic logistics of field operation. The farmer who will run the 48-row planter anticipates running after dark to deal with our late, cool, wet spring. He found that his tractor's field lights don't adequately illuminate the ends of the planter. That's no problem while planting the body of his fields because he'll use GPS/autosteer for guidance. But keeping the end of the planter out of fences and ditches when outlining fields has him concerned, so he's outfitting floodlights on both ends of the tool bar. One of the surprises was how much wire it takes to run from the power supply at the center of the planter, with extra wire at the hinge points, out to those two floodlamps at the ends of each wing. Will the extra resistance of all that wiring overload the planter's lighting system? Time, and the first night of planting after dark, will tell.

That's the way it goes when upgrading to bigger or more complicated equipment. Maybe it's relative. I remember Dad complaining about the extra hassle of having  to unhook the simple one-wire connector for the Dickey-John seed monitor on the 6-row planter he bought back in the late '60's. I wonder what he would think of the snarl of more than 20 hydraulic hoses and wiring harnesses that have to be deciphered every time the 48-row planter is hooked to its tractor?

Here are the hoses and harnesses required for that 48-row planter. This particular unit has some extra bells and whistles that add an extra half dozen cables and connectors, but the picture makes the point that it can take a lot of hydraulic capacity and a potent alternator to power modern equipment.
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