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August 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.

Perfect Platform Performance

Aug 31, 2009
 Everybody wants their small grain platforms to cut well enough to leave soybean and other small grain fields as smooth as a pool table's top. Money, painstaking adjustments and a roll of electrician's tape can improve the performance of most platforms.

Money is the first component necessary to improve platform performance because it's expensive to keep knife sections, guards and other components in top condition. Everybody accepts that knife sections must be razor sharp, but even a sharp knife section won't cut well if it's shuttling back and forth through rock guards with dulled, rounded edges. Replacing knife sections and guards when they show only minor wear gets expensive because you're literally throwing away components that aren't entirely worn out; they're just slightly dull. But that's the cost of optimum platform performance.

Painstaking adjustments allow small grain platforms to cut crop with minimal effort and feed that crop into the combine without hesitation or bunching. Cutterbars should be adjusted so the guards and knives run slightly "nose down." As crop pushes into a cutterbar assembly that is slightly nose down the crop applies pressure that pushes the knife against the cutting surface of the guards, improving the shearing action. If the cutterbar assembly is tilted slightly "nose up," the crop lifts the knife slightly away from the cutting edges of the guards, reducing cutting efficiency.

Reel height and speed are extremely dependent on crop conditions but critical to optimum cutting performance. Some operators disagree, but I like to see reels low and as close to the cross auger as possible. I want the reel teeth lightly (lightly!) pressing the cut but still upright crop lightly into the flighting on the cross auger. The reel should be turning 10 percent faster than the drive wheels on the combine. If everything is adjusted properly, crop should move from the cutterbar then back against the cross auger then sideways to the throat of the combine feederhouse in one continuous motion. If there is any hesitation or bunching, something is out of adjustment.

Automatic header height control systems vary from combine manufacturer to combine manufacturer, but the concept is universal: determine an average height for the automatic system to maintain. Whether the settings are made in the cab or on the control box on the end of the platform, lower the platform so it is simply firm against the ground and note that height. Then raise the platform until the cutterbar just starts to come off the ground. Adjust the cutterbar to run halfway between those two points. Beware of setting the "lowest" point with the platform pressed so hard against the ground that the combine's tires are almost in the air-- the resulting mid-point will be much lower than desired and the platform will tend to push dirt and collect rocks.

It can take hours--even days--to meticulously go through a large platform and replace any less-than-razor sharp components and then make adjustments to cutterbar tilt, reel height, auger position and header height control systems. It takes a lot of self-control to replace parts that are only slightly worn, and a lot of patience to painstakingly check all the possible adjustments on a 30-, 35- or even 40-foot platform. But those are the keys to getting platforms to leave small grain fields as smooth as the top of a pool table.

Oh--I almost forgot the final element in perfecting platform performance: a roll of electrician's tape. Take a small piece of tape and place it over the ground speed display on the cornerpost in the combine cab. Ignore how fast your combine says it's goingIGNORE HOW FAST YOUR NEIGHBOR'S COMBINE APPEARS TO BE GOING.  IGNORE HOW FAST YOUR NEIGHBOR SAYS HIS COMBINE IS GOING. Adjust your ground speed according to the way YOUR platform is leaving stubble in YOUR field under YOUR conditions. Stubble should be standing straight, sharply sheared, not pushed over or leaning with a ragged cut.  If you cannot stand to run a combine without knowing actual ground speed, it is safe to say that most platforms do a nice job at 4.5 mph. Well-maintained and adjusted platforms under good conditions will hum along at 5.5 mph and have been known to work well at 6 mph.

Those guys who say they cut soybeans or small grains at 7 mph and do a "perfect" job...? They're better at adjusting, maintaining and operating small grain platforms than I am.

Good Goop

Aug 23, 2009
 I've used it for years because some manufacturers recommend it, but finally understand the principle behind dielectric compound. I was researching a story that will run in Farm Journal Magazine this winter, and had reason to research whether this Vaseline-like goop is good, bad or useless.

Dielectric compound is a non-conductive, water repellent lubricant recommended for use in electrical connectors used under "severe conditions." That would be most agricultural applications. At first glance, dielectric compound is a little confusing because "dielectric" means "non-conductive." So what's the theory behind putting a non-conductive product in electrical connectors?

The theory is that when you plug together an electrical connector, the male pins and female sockets are a friction fit that squeezes out the dielectric compound so there is good metal-to-metal contact. The dielectric compound, being non-conductive, insulates each pin/socket against minute leaks of voltage from adjacent pins. The lubricative qualities of the compound make it easier to plug and unplug the connector, and the water-repellent nature helps seal out moisture and dust that is such a headache in electrical systems on farm equipment.

So, in short, dielectric compound--aka "dielectric grease"-- does exactly what its name implies, and does it well. It insulates pins within electrical connectors to prevent voltage leaks. It lubricates to ease plugging and unplugging connectors. It seals out moisture and reduces problems with dreaded "green pin syndrome" due to water-corroded electrical connectors.

And, if you're thinking that you could achieve the same results with plain ol' bearing grease, my research indicates that plain ol' bearing grease doesn't have the same insulating and water repellent characteristics as dielectric compound. Some bearing greases actually absorb and "hold" moisture, which would be bad in electrical connectors. Plus, petroleum-based greases can attack and literally dissolve some types of rubber or plastic used in electrical system connectors and wiring harnesses.

You can get dielectric compound at many auto parts stores, electronic supply retailers and at some farm equipment dealerships.

Cool Stuff For Combines

Aug 16, 2009
 Each fall I see more and more accessories and options bolted, welded or zip-tied to combines. Here's a list of cool stuff I've seen on combines:

-TV cameras and display screens. I initially thought this was technological overkill, until I drove a camera-equipped combine around our dealership and found out how handy it is to be able to see behind the machine when backing up or turning sharply in a tight space. A system with a display screen in the cab and a single camera mounted on the back sells for around $350. That's less than the insurance deductible for repairing sheet metal damage if you back the combine into a fence post or grain cart tractor. Some of our customers move the system from their combine to their planter or other large farm equipment to get year-round use out of their investment.

-Leaf blowers. I'm talking about those annoyingly loud, gas-powered blowers suburbanites use to clear leaves and lawn debris from their yards. Some of our customers keep a leaf blower on their combine and blow dust and debris off their machine as part of daily maintenance. Not only does that reduce the potential for fires, but the act of going around and blowing off the machine often helps identify cracked belts, failing bearings and other potential breakdowns before they occur.

-Bluetooth/wireless telephone headsets. Running a combine takes two hands (most of the time. See the next item for exceptions). A wireless headset, or even a corded headset plugged into a cell phone, allows you to keep both hands on steering wheel and control levers. It's almost a safety issue--I've seen scary things happen when a combine operator was scrabbling to find and answer his cell phone when driving a combine with a 35-foot small grain platform and only 2 or 3 feet of clearance between the end of the platform and the tires of the tractor pulling the grain cart.

-Autosteer. Whether harvesting small grain with a GPS-guided unit, or doing corn with a "feeler"-guided system, auto steer is the way to go. I know, I know--I'm from the old school, too, and used to think that it was a waste of money to pay so a machine could steer itself, but it only took a couple rounds behind the steering wheel of a auto-steer-equipped combine to change my mind. Auto steer allows the operator to concentrate on watching for rocks, adjusting crop flow, adjusting the machine---basically, making sure the machine is working at optimum performance. I've never had a customer who DIDN'T feel they got their money's worth out of an autosteer system.

-Dry-Erase Markers. All those things you write down in the notebook you keep in the armrest? All those yield, moisture and acreage numbers you scribble on the back of your hand with an ink pen? Write them on the glass of the right cab window with a Dry Erase Marker. I've got a customer that literally fills that window with cell phone numbers, test plot yields, machine settings and all the things he thinks about while combining. Everybody laughs when they get into his cab and see the window covered with numbers and notes, but....every year, more and more combines come into the shop with Dry Erase scribblings on the windows.

There are dozens of other gadgets and accessories that help make combining easier, more efficient or more comfortable. You've probably got something you added to your harvest equipment to make it easier to operate, more comfortable or more efficient---what's the extra gizmo that you can't go to the field without?

A/C Aggravations

Aug 07, 2009
It takes an hour or less in a modern tractor, combine or hay conditioner cab with a faulty ventilation system to discover that air conditioning is not optional in modern farm equipment. Windows in modern cabs don't open wide enough, or don't open at all. We've all tried to be a hero or tightwad and run without A/C, but quickly decided that saunas should be recreational and not part of daily work. Here are a few comments and suggestions about A/C systems and some of their maladies:

-When an A/C system fails, always check the condenser coil, the radiator-like unit mounted in front of the real radiator. If the condenser is plugged with hay dust, silage chaff or talcum-like field dust, it can prevent a system from cooling properly. If possible, use compressed air to blow out plugged condensers before flushing with water. Using a garden hose or high-pressure washer first can create mud that lodges between condenser fins and restricts airflow.

-If the cab fan/blower stops working, check for a blown fuse on the cab fuse panel. There may also be a fuse related specifically to the A/C system.

-A/C systems are technically not supposed to be worked on by anyone who isn't certified to work on A/C systems. Some farmers tinker with A/C themselves. If you are a tinkerer, be VERY cautious about adding aftermarket or black market refrigerants to A/C systems. There are a few products floating around the market that reportedly use anhydrous ammonia or propane as refrigerants. Anhydrous or propane will act as a refrigerant, but... Imagine being in a cab if an A/C line filled with anhydrous ammonia sprung a leak. Even worse, what if a propane-charged system sprung a leak and an operator lit a cigarette? 

-If any noncertified refrigerant is introduced into an A/C system, no certified A/C technician can or will touch it. If they hook up their gauges or test equipment to a "contaminated" system, it causes all sorts of problems with expensive test equipment. Contaminated A/C systems become orphans that no one will work on.

-Got a tractor or pickup that stinks every time the A/C or ventilation system is turned on? There could be a puddle of water or damp spot somewhere in the ductwork with mold, mildew and other evil-smelling stuff growing in it. Auto parts stores sell a variety of aerosol deodorizers that can be sprayed deep into ventilation systems to kill smelly duct-dwellers. Some mechanics have gizmos that connect to ventilation systems to use ozone or ultrasound or special deodorizing compounds to flush and deep-clean ventilation systems. The units cost $200 to $350, so they're probably too pricey for an individual farmer to buy.

Or you can buy a really big, evil-smelling cigar and self-fumigate the next time you plan to spend a couple hours in the cab.


Aug 03, 2009
 Anthropomorphism is defined as seeing human attributes in the behavior of animals. In other words, we think our dog acts like a human, or think our favorite old cow reminds us of Aunt Gert. There's a whole segment of science trying to figure out if animals actually think, laugh, or have human-type emotions. I'll leave that debate to scientists, but I'll add another wrinkle to their studies by inventing a new classification: mechanopomorphism.

Mechanopomorphism is the tendency to view and treat machines as if they have human characteristics and behaviors. As a mechanic, I can attest that no two machines perform exactly the same, despite having identical mechanical components and settings. Some machines are sweet-running, reliable, and rarely break down. Others, with identical parts and operated in identical fashion, run rough, perform poorly and are constant problems for their operators.

I'll venture into dangerous waters and note that mechanics and farmers tend to refer to machinery as feminine. Such as, "The ol' girl is running rough today," or, "She hasn't been starting very good."  There's a chance that this feminine reference is an accidental tradition, but....I'm thinking it has more to do with unpredictability and mercurial behavior.

The reason for this venture into machine psychology is the recent departure of my beloved 1991 Ford F150 pickup. Her engine was tight and didn't burn a drop of oil in 3,000 miles, but her tranny was weak and she had terminal body cancer. I'll admit I felt a strong pang of remorse when I drove past the dealership yesterday and saw her sitting in the "junker" row, waiting for a trip to the crusher. She served me well, performed loyally. We battled many a snowy, drifted gravel road, visited many farm ponds and rural streams on fishing trips together. How can you not develop an attachment toward someone you spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours with over the years?

Okay, maybe I'm a little nuts. Maybe it's a little odd to feel emotion toward a machine. But I miss that old girl. I can't say that about an uppity, somewhat persnickety Nissan truck I owned 20 years ago, or the satan-spawned Isuzu SUV witch that my wife briefly drove 8 years ago. But I know that my dad kept the first Farmall 450 tractor he owned until the day he had his farm auction--and I know it bothered him to watch somebody else drive her out the driveway. 

Maybe it's just an odd quirk of our family to mechanopomorphize our vehicles and machinery. Whatever the case, I'm taking a different road to town until my old truck isn't sitting there watching sadly, accusingly, as I drive past in my new ride.
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