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September 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.

Fix Equipment Over The Phone

Sep 22, 2012

 Here are a few suggestions to use a cell phone to diagnose and possibly repair equipment malfunctions:

-all directions--right, left, front, rear--are given as if you're sitting in the driver's seat. North, south, east, west, "my left," or "my right" mean nothing to the person on the other end of the phone who's trying to help you.

-don't try to describe a motor or machine malfunction if you're standing next to the machine while it's running. Shouting louder won't help the other person hear you over the background noise. Repeating yourself even louder--I SAID, REPEATING YOURSELF EVEN LOUDER--doesn't help.

-when possible, write down any diagnostic codes, error codes or other information displayed on the machine's cornerpost or dashboard. Don't be offended if the person on the phone says,"That doesn't mean anything, don't worry about it," when you report the individual codes. They're not calling you stupid; they're just thinking out loud and letting you know that many of the warnings that show up aren't anything to worry about.

-if the person who's trying to help you suggests you do something you're already tried, be patient and try that process again. Sometimes, with modern farm equipment, it's not WHAT you do as much as the sequence in which you do it. 

-Have the machine's serial number in the cab with you. Many diagnostic tests, let alone part numbers, are dependent on the serial number of the machine. 

-Before you call for help on diagnosing the cause or figuring out how to repair the problem, take a deep breath and think about what you were doing with the machine when it malfunctioned. Were you turning on a headland, crossing a waterway, going uphill, going downhill, bouncing across ruts--it can speed diagnosis if you're prepared to help the guy on the phone not only figure out WHAT broke, but WHY it broke.

Cell phones can be wonderful tools that save time and money when equipment breaks down. How much time and money they save depends on the way they are used. I SAID, HOW MUCH TIME AND MONEY THEY SAVE DEPENDS ON THE WAY THEY ARE USED....

Update From The Front Lines Of Harvest

Sep 16, 2012

 I've never seen crops vary so much, nor combines require such diverse settings and frequent adjustments. Combine adjustments that work great at one end of a field cause large crop losses at the other end of the same field. The policy of setting a combine once at the beginning of harvest for corn and once again for soybeans, then harvesting those crops with only minor tweaks is a sure guarantee to leave lots of $8 corn and $17 soybeans in the fields.

Here are some of the things I've noticed about combine performance this fall:

-The black mold, fungus and poor stalk quality is wreaking havoc on engine air filters. A lot of guys are having to clean their engine air filters daily. In general, most engine manufacturers are comfortable with blowing out the OUTER air filter, but discourage cleaning the INNER air filter. When that inner filter becomes dirty or darkly discolored, replace it rather than clean it.

-Check your cab air filter frequently. It's not just for your comfort--if that filter gets completely plugged it overworks the cab filter fan(s) and can "burn" them out so they require replacement.

-Concave, rotor/cylinder, and other separator settings are all over the board, depending on the condition of the crop. In general, we're seeing concave settings in corn up to 1/3 tighter than normal due to small cobs. Soybeans--as of this week when stems and pods are tending green in our area--seem to favor tighter concave settings as well. Small corn kernals and small soybeans mean smaller sieve openings are working well. Oddly, grain test weights have been unusually high in our territory, so higher cleaning fan speeds have worked well to separate the wet crop debris from the heavier grain.

-In corn, deck plate settings have been critical. Guys are getting blistered thumbs from constantly adjusting the buttons on their hydro handles that control deck plate width, trying match stalk and ear size to minimize header losses. If you don't have cab-adjustable deck plates, the best you can do is set them tight then slow your ground speed in areas where stalks are "thicker" and speed up in areas where small stalks and small ears want to go through the deck plates or butt-shell on the snapping rolls.

-So far, despite the dry conditions, we've had no combine fires. That's amazing. Our customers are doing a great job of blowing off combines daily. Sometimes twice a day. It's a dirty, unpleasant job, but I firmly believe that sort of attention to detail is behind the reduction in combine fires. Plus, we've got a bunch of sharp-eyed grain cart drivers who have learned or been taught to visually inspect combines from front to rear every time they approach to catch a load of grain.

Still Time To Learn How To Adjust Combines

Sep 09, 2012

 This year will teach many combine operators the importance of carefully adjusting their machines. Early harvest, occasional rain showers ,and ongoing warm weather have sprouted grain "thrown over" by combines in fields that have already been tilled for next year.

Aside from the pain of seeing $8/bushel corn and $17/bushel soybeans sprouting in harvested fields, there is much to learn by studying the way the sprouts are distributed.

If corn sprouts are roughly following this year's rows, then the losses were probably from the snapping rolls and deck plates. It's not too late to tighten deck plates to prevent the rest of this year's small ears from shelling on the rolls, or passing completely through the rolls.

If the combine is a design where stalks and stems go through the straw chopper while hulls and lighter debris exit off the sieves: a stripe of sprouts the same width as the combine's body hints the losses were coming off the sieves. Adjust sieves to keep grain in while passing small cobs and debris out of the machine.

If all crop material passes through the straw chopper it's tougher to decipher if the losses are from the sieves or coming off the rotor/straw walkers. One hint is that if the sprouts are in clumps, it implies several kernals still attached to the cob are growing. That means the concave was too open or the cylinder/rotor speed was too slow and all the kernels weren't getting threshed off the cobs. BUT--if the concave was so "tight" it was splitting the cobs rather than rolling the kernels off, it can give the same results because split cobs carry their kernels with them out the back of the combine.

I've heard stories from around the state that some early-harvested, early-tilled fields are rapidly turning solid green, as if they were seeded by an airplane or tailgate seeder. Either the combine was really throwing over a lot of high-priced grain, or...the farmer is extremely progressive, on the cutting edge of soil conservation, and is using waste grain to create a cover crop to reduce soil erosion and retain nutrients over the winter. Yeah, as if the neighbors will buy THAT story...

Kind Words For Engineers

Sep 06, 2012

 I have occasionally voiced frustration with the way an engineer designed a piece of equipment I was working on. This evening I want to give credit to some anonymous mid-level engineers, stuck in cubicles somewhere, who took time to design things "smart."

-kudos to the engineer who, when designing a large diameter pully on a clean grain elevator, realized it would be difficult to get a gear puller spread wide enough to grasp the outer edges of that big pulley. So he designed a 1/2-inch by 1/2-inch groove around the outer edge of the pulley's center hub. I was able to lock the jaws of my 3-jaw puller into that groove and remove that pulley with ease. Somebody buy that engineer a beverage of his choice.

-I'll bet the engineer that designed the chain tensioner for feederhouse drive chains on a certain series of combines grew up on a farm. To tighten that chain tensioner, you have to slide the idler sprocket sideways in a long groove. The designing engineer included a series of 1/2-inch holes the length of the backside of the tensioner's slot. Put a punch or pointed pry bar into one of the holes and it's embarrassingly easy to lever the sprocket sideways and give that chain the exact tension it needs. Only a farm boy would think ahead and provide pry-holes to tension a chain.

-If you don't adjust conveyor chains equally, they can run off to the side of their sprockets and wear unevenly. So it was nice that an unknown engineer specified that small notches be punched along the sides of the adjusting slots on tailings elevators. It only takes a glance to see if one side of the tensioner is ahead of the other--makes keeping that chain evenly tensioned very easy. Thanks, Mr. Anonymous Engineer!

I still get annoyed when I try to add engine oil to a fill tube that's behind an engine deck support, or when a tractor's engine air filter is 1/2-inch longer than the space under the tractor's hood the engineer allowed for removal. I've been known to question the morality of an engineer's mother after wrestling with engine fuel filters that require--according to the engineers themselves--250 pumps on a hand primer. But it gives me hope that there are still a few engineers out there, probably farm boys or farm boys at heart, who think about the mechanics and farmers who actually have to work on that equipment.

However, I still want to have a talk with the genius that decided running hydraulic hoses and wiring harnesses INSIDE planter frame tubes--and their folding hinges--was a good idea.

Chicken Little Warning on "Black Dust" When Harvesting?

Sep 02, 2012

 This may be a "Chicken Little" warning, but it might be a good idea to be cautious of the black dust that's coming off corn during harvest this fall. In some fields the stalks literally are black, and combines are coated with black dust after only one pass through the field. Even in fields that look "normal," there are often pockets where black dust fogs from the header and straw chopper as those areas are harvested.

I've talked to representatives with several seed corn companies, and they say most of the dust is annoying but mostly harmless. BUT--any dust in high density can cause problems for folks with allergies or respiratory problems. Since most farmers over the age of 30 have dealt with cleaning musty grain from grain bins at some time, most farmers have some degree of sensitivity to grain dust and molds.

According to a press release by Alison Robertson, with Pioneer Seed's Department of Plant Pathology, most of the black cornstalks are due to saprophytic fungi--microorganisms that feed on dead plant material. A lot of cornstalks died early this year, and the recent round of widespread rain followed by a week of hot, humid weather encouraged widespread development of that mostly harmless fungi.

BUT--the same conditions that encouraged the growth of saprophytic fungi also favored the development of a lot of other molds and fungi. Some of them can make a person sick. I talked with several farmers who have already experienced the chills, fevers and muscle aches associated with "dust flu" after they were exposed to black dust while harvesting corn. At least two guys I know told me they also developed a rash on their arms after working in a situation where a lot of the black dust coated their exposed skin.

So. I sincerely hope that nobody gets sick this fall due to exposure to black dust, and that some of you email me this winter and harass me about this "Chicken Little" warning. But in the meantime, I'm carrying and wearing dust masks designed to stop mold spores whenever I have to work around combines that are spewing black dust. At least one large farmer in our area has switched all his cab filters from standard filters to special "allergy filters" that are designed to stop mold spores. Until we get a better grip on what's waiting for us in the fields this fall, it wouldn't hurt to use caution when working in dusty conditions.

A final note: another thing we've noticed is, even if nobody gets sick from the black dust, it's playing havoc with air filter longevity. Not only do cab and engine air filters plug quickly when exposed to that stuff, but it's so fine and organic that it's very, very difficult to blow out of the filters. If you're noticing poor ventilation in your cab, or your engine is short on power, make sure your air filters are as clean as you can make them. 

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