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April 2012 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.

When It Takes More than One Try to Fix It

Apr 26, 2012

 The word "re-work" sends chills down a mechanic's spine. It means having to repeat a repair because some aspect of the original repair failed. It means an unhappy customer. It means the mechanic may "lose money" because in some cases he won't get paid for having to do the same repair twice. It's a bad deal.

Some re-work is flat-out due to mistakes. We all make mistakes, and they must be corrected. A limited amount of re-work is due to faulty parts. If that's the case, the dealership usually tries to get the manufacturer to stand behind the faulty parts, and to pay for not only the newest set of parts but also the mechanic's labor to replace the faulty parts.

Some re-work just "happens." Some machines refuse to be fixed. All a mechanic can do is tear things apart again, carefully examine the situation, and then determine if there is a microscopic flaw, aberration or misalignment that is causing repeated failure of the piece or component. 

Honesty helps. I once repeatedly had to repeatedly unplug the threshing cylinder on a combine. My boss was beginning to wonder if I was misaligning the concave or doing something that made the machine prone to plugging. After the third trip to laboriously dig out material packed between the concave and rasp bars, the operator finally confessed that he had been using the combine to "mow" the grass and weeds in waterways when he crossed them, rather than raising the header over the lush green growth. Once he used the combine only to combine soybeans, his (and my) problems with plugging the concave disappeared.

The most frustrating type of re-work is intermittent electrical problems. Things like seed tube sensors that sometimes work and sometimes don't, or sprayer boom shut-offs that sometimes don't turn on/shut off like they're supposed to. A mechanic can't fix something if it's not broke, and trying to diagnose an intermittent problem is a hair-puller because you can't be certain it's "broke" while your testing, or if the testing has accidentally jiggled a faulty wire or connection and "fixed" the intermittent problem. 

That's why, if you call a mechanic to come fix a gushing oil leak, a smoking belt or a smoldering bearing, they usually are confident as they make the repair. It was plainly, obviously "broke." Confidence is harder to come by when the mechanic is chasing some nasty little electrical gremlin causing an intermittent electrical problem.

In The Shop: "It Belonged To One Of Our Mechanics..."

Apr 22, 2012

 Occasionally a pickup, car, motorcycle, garden tractor or other piece of machinery is touted by a dealership salesman as, "It belonged to one of our mechanics." Being one of those mechanics, I'm never sure whether the salesman is bragging or complaining.

That's because most mechanics know how to care for a machine. They understand what neglect and abuse does to machinery. They know how to do proper maintenance, they know the symptoms of potential problems, and they know how to fix things "right."  In theory, a machine owned by a mechanic should be better than a machine owned by a non-mechanic.

But. As a mechanic, I also know how to cobble, patch, jury-rig and improvise when it comes to working on machinery. Sometimes I enjoy working on my own equipment and take pride and make extreme efforts to keep it perfect. And sometimes I'm so tired of fixing busted equipment that I use every shortcut and trick I know to simply keep my stuff running long enough to do the afterhours work I need to get done. 

Have I ever fretted and honed and polished and perfected a motorcycle or lawn mower I owned? You bet. It's part of my nature as a mechanic. Have I ever used duct tape, JB Weld and zip ties to patch together a machine in order to get my work done at home--or possibly get it sold? You bet--it's part of my nature as a mechanic.

I'm not bragging or confessing. There are motorcycles and vehicles I've sold that I'd buy back in an instant, given a chance. But not all of them. If I sold something "cheap," it was priced appropriately.

The Next Step In Planting Perfection?

Apr 19, 2012

Some of you are way ahead of me on this, but this spring it finally dawned on me that in many cases, planter performance is limited by the quality of seedbed preparation.

For example: a customer and I wrestled with a planter that refused to plant at a consistent depth. Some seeds were 1 1/2-inches deep. Others were 2 or more inches deep. This occurred in the same row, often only a few feet from each other. He was no-tilling into last year's soybean stubble. He had fall-applied anhydrous, and the anhydrous knife marks were significantly more mellow than the untilled bean stubble. He had applied anhydrous at a slight angle to the rows, and whenever a planter unit crossed the mellow soil of a knife mark, it planted seeds an inch deeper than in the untilled soil between knife marks.

Another customer had a similar situation in fall-chiseled corn ground, after it had been field cultivated one time. We noticed variations in seed depth, and also differences in the density of the seed furrow sidewalls. We traced those variations to the speed and setting of his field cultivator---his sweeps, and tines on the leveler, were worn. The sweeps were leaving ridges, and the leveler teeth were leaving an uneven seedbed. In some places the planter's disk openers were carving a slot in hard soil that the worn sweeps had "missed." In others, the seeds were being planted only a 1/2-inch deep because that row was running in a groove that the tined leveler couldn't fill.

The best "looking" seedbed I've seen this spring came from a vertical tillage tool operated at 7 to 8 mph. It was beautiful--level, with crop residue nicely blended into the soil. The top inch or so had excellent tilth, and I was really impressed--till I started digging for seeds. There was a hard-pan about 2 inches down, and many of the seeds were sitting in crisp furrows carved into that hardpan. They were nicely covered and firmed into place, but I'll be curious how their roots deal with the hard walls of those seed furrows.

Those three situations impressed on me that even though we're getting pretty darned good at metering seed with fabled "picket fence" perfection, we've still got a lot to learn about getting those perfectly spaced seeds to sprout and emerge into a picket fence stand. Just because we put every seed 2 inches deep, spaced exactly 6 1/2 inches apart with the planter doesn't mean we'll have a picket fence stand when the corn is knee high. I think we're going to have to pay more attention to seedbed preparation if we want to take full advantage of the planting potential offered by modern planters.

Testing Seed Tube Sensors

Apr 15, 2012

 It's annoying to have one or two rows on your planter's seed monitor show either "failure" or consistently low population. Have those rows truly failed, are they really planting several thousand seeds per acre less than other rows? The only way to tell is to get off the tractor and dig.

If digging proves the rows in question are actually misplanting, then you have to figure out what mechanical aspect of the planter is causing the problem. But if the planter is planting correctly, then the problem is in the seed monitoring system, and it's time to do some diagnostics. 

If a row shows complete failure on the seed monitor, my first suspicion is the seed tube sensor. There are a couple ways to check a seed tube sensor. One way is to swap the questionable sensor to another row, and see if the problem follows the questionable sensor to that row. I prefer to use a seed tube sensor tester, purchased from Ag Express, that I can plug into the sensor as it's mounted in the planter--it saves removing seed boxes to access and swap sensors. I just dance a long plastic zip tie up and down past the sensor's "eye" and my tester beeps every time the zip tie moves past the eye--if the sensor is good. 

Don't waste time taking a sensor off a seed tube and cleaning or tinkering with it. Seed sensors either work or they don't. You may be able to see the cause of the failure (the lenses often get fine scratches that look like a haze, that prevents the sensor from monitoring accurately) or the problem may be internal and invisible. Either way, it's junk. Strap on a new sensor and see if that cures the problem.

If the the monitor still shows low or no seeds being planted by a specific row, it's time to check wiring. Carefully, patiently check every inch of wire from the seed tube sensor all the way to the backside of the monitor in the tractor cab. Key points to check are where the wires are routed through the parallel linkages right at the planter unit; anywhere the harness passes through a hinge area on a folding planter; and at the back of the tractor where the planter's hitch and the tractor's 3-point can often catch and crush wiring harnesses.

Broken or frayed wires are obvious culprits. Less obvious and more insidious are "flattened" wiring harnesses that are the result of either getting flattened between metal components of the planter, or due to the harness being stretched so much that the wires inside separated even though the outer rubber sheathing stretched and didn't break. Either way, the only way to check is to use a knife and remove the outer sheathing to determine if any wires inside are damaged.

Don't panic and think the actual seed monitor console in the tractor has gone bad until you're certain all the seed tube sensors and wiring harnesses are functioning properly. Seed monitor consoles are remarkably reliable--but they do sometimes fail. Check the cheap stuff first, before you send the console for repairs.

And, if you're desperate to finish a field, but reluctant to plant "blind," consider how many acres your grandpa planted without any sort of seed monitoring system. Talk about an act of faith...

In The Shop: Diagnosing Complicated Stuff

Apr 07, 2012

I "started" a new planter yesterday. The customer bought a new, larger planter, equipped with just about every computerized, GPS-related, sophisticated system he could order. Sitting in the farmyard, after I demonstrated how to unfold, fold, calibrate, turn on/off/adjust  the various vacuum or pressurized-air systems, and had explained the basic steps of how to program and operate the touch-screen computer display in the cab---he turned to me in all sincerity and asked, "Is it too late to get my old planter back? I just want to plant--I don't want to fly the Space Shuttle."

I understand his frustration. I didn't completely understand everything I was trying to explain to him--I'm learning as I go. There's only so much a person can learn by reading a tech book or owner's manual, sitting in the shop. For me, the best way to learn is by "doing," so some of my most educational days are spent in a field, learning out of desperation. 

One of the things I've learned I have to do is think "simple." I have to force myself to view farm equipment as separate systems. That planter I worked on yesterday included the mechanical planter, a vacuum seed delivery system, a pressurized seed delivery system, a seed monitoring system, a GPS guidance system on the tractor, an auto-steer system on the tractor, GPS-based automatic row shut-offs and the ability to alter planting rates according to a "prescription." In some ways, they're all interconnected, but to a large degree they stand alone. The new owner "saw" all those systems as one, big, confusing mess. I saw them as a dozen individual messes. 

When a buzzer went off on the in-cab touch-screen display, he panicked, thinking the whole thing was malfunctioning. I calmly studied the display, identified exactly which system was reporting a malfunction, poked around on the screen to find out specifically what aspect of the failed system was causing the problem, THEN I panicked. 

My point is, when working with modern technology, don't let the big picture overwhelm you. It's dramatic when a $5000 touch-screen display flashes all sorts of warnings and diagnostic codes. Looks like the end of the world. But if you read the warnings, calmly follow the prompts, it may simply be a dirty seed tube sensor that's causing one row to read "low." In the end, we're still simply putting seeds in the ground. All the fancy computerized stuff just makes it seem more complicated. 

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