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April 2013 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.

Why I Always Read The Obituaries

Apr 28, 2013

 Some might think I'm morbid, the way I religiously read the obituaries in our local daily newspaper each evening. I learned the hard way that it pays to know what's going on in our rural community.

A decade or more ago, I went to a customer's farm to do some work on his planter. His farmstead was always a showplace, and part of any visit there during warm weather included a nod and a wave to his wife, who always seemed to be working in their large, immaculate garden. As the farmer and I worked on the machine, just to be social and friendly, I commented on the nice spring weather and said, "It won't be long before your wife will be back out in her garden..."

He stopped and turned away from me, took a deep breath, and said, "Not this spring. She got cancer last winter and died six week ago."

So now I not only routinely read the obituaries, I regularly compare notes with other mechanics and our salesmen, just to stay abreast of who died, who got divorced and other potentially sensitive topics. Sometimes knowing how to fix machinery is only part of what a farm mechanic needs to know to serve his customers well. 

First Day Of Planting Landmines

Apr 21, 2013

 No matter how hard you plan and prepare, the first day in the field often has hiccups. Here are some common problems we hear about at the dealership on the first day of planting:

-GPS guidance problems. It's a great idea to spend a half day driving up and down the road or around a field to check not only if GPS systems are calibrated and working properly, but to see if you remember how to operate the system. Practice setting A-B lines, curved lines, see if any auto-row-shut off/on systems are operating correctly. It's awkward to do that sort of testing with big planters, but well worth the time.

-software updates. Even if you didn't change planters or tractors, mysterious things can happen to GPS systems that are best fixed by software updates. Work with your GPS/guidance provider to determine if your systems have the best software.

-Software back-dates. Note that I said "best" software. Sometimes the latest and greatest software from the manufacturer has so many glitches and bugs that the smoothest performance comes from an earlier version of software. Again, work with your technology advisor to determine what's best for your situation.

-Test load, test plant. Some of you are fanatics about preparation, and I applaud you, because there are a surprising number of other, less organized operators who simply throw seed in their tender or planter and start planting. Or TRY to start planting.Those are the ones where I end up unloading seed tenders or planters in order to access whatever prevents things from working. I strongly advocate throwing a test sample of seed in seed tenders and loading it in to the planter, then test-planting a farmyard or small field. There's no substitute for actually running machines under field conditions to identify first-day-problems.

With a big planter, you may end up planting 15 or 20 acres around the buildings or in a field far from the road before you get the bugs out, but time spent chasing bugs will help you roll non-stop once planting weather EVENTUALLY arrives this spring.


My Magic Box Of Tricks

Apr 14, 2013

Last year a fellow mechanic asked if he could borrow my "magical box of tricks." I was a little baffled, then he explained with a grin that he wanted to use the plastic toolbox/tacklebox in which I keep tools and supplies related to electrical repairs. He said that when I helped him in a previous repair, every time he mentioned needing a pair of wire strippers, a roll of tape, or some butt connectors, I immediately produced the needed item from my "box of tricks" that I brought to the job.

I have to admit, the electrical repair kit I put together has saved time and a lot of walking back and forth to my service truck or main toolbox. Electrical repairs generally require the same tools and supplies, so over time I accumulated those tools and supplies in one easy-to-carry toolbox. It has my multimeter, extension leads for the multimeter, crimping pliers, wire stripper, a small butane torch for heat-shrink connectors, small needle nose pliers, various tools to disassemble Deutsch and WeatherPak connectors, a couple small rolls of 12- to 16-gauge wire, and dozens and dozens of small zip ties and assorted butt connectors. 

I like the idea of grabbing one toolbox, climbing into a tractor cab or combine engine compartment, and having 99 percent of the tools and repair supplies I need within easy reach. I guess some folks might consider it "magical" to have essential tools easily at hand when making repairs, but I figured it was just a good way to eliminate a half-dozen trips back and forth to my service truck for tools and supplies. Laziness and innovation often share roots in Dan's world.

No Quick Fixes For A/C Problems

Apr 11, 2013

 As warmer weather slowly arrives, it's time for the annual glut of air conditioner repair calls. I'm not an expert on A/C repairs, but have learned enough to not be dangerous. One of the things I've learned is that those little cans of gunk advertised to stop slow leaks in air conditioning systems can be very expensive.

The theory is that a farmer can use the hose that comes with those "stop leak kits" to add product to their air conditioning system that will plug small leaks that slowly drain the refrigerant from the system. 

First, I'm not a fan of "stop leak" products for radiators or air conditioning systems. I confess, in my younger, more impetuous years, I used a stop leak product on a leaky radiator and it worked long enough to finish fieldwork. Then it had to be fixed right. 

But that was a long time ago, and radiators and air conditioning condensers have changed. It has to do with manufacturing processes and the physics of cooling or heating modern farm equipment, but the short story is that the internal passages in modern radiators and especially air conditioning condensors are smaller than they used to be. It's a lot easier for contaminants--or additives--to plug those smaller passages. Add the internal passages in thermal expansion valves, which are part of any air conditioning system, and you've got to wonder how the miracle goo knows which small openings are leaks that need to be plugged, and which are critical components of the air conditioning system that should NEVER be plugged.  Must be smart goo.

So, if you've got a small A/C leak and want to try a temporary fix, nobody's stopping you from adding some of the miracle goo. But later this summer when you have to pay to have the plugged condenser replaced and STILL have the small leak that started the problem...

The Price Of Planter Perfection

Apr 07, 2013

 Working on finger-style planter seed meters has emphasized something I've seen over and over: When it comes to performance on farm machinery, perfection comes at a price.

Using finger-style seed meters as an example: On a test stand, a meter runs 96- to 97-percent singulation. So I tweak the unit's finger tension, fiddle with belt alignment, maybe try a new seed brush. I can get it to the range of 98 percent, but no amount of additional adjusting gets me closer to perfection. Closer inspection reveals a "little" wear to the backing plate, a "little" wear to the base of each of the fingers, a "little" wear to the face of the cam that actuates the fingers. None of those components are worn enough to justify the expense of replacement, but all the wear eventually adds up. If I replace the entire finger assembly, performance pops to 99.6 per cent. If I replace the backing plate or seed belt drive wheel, it climbs even closer to the hallowed 100 per cent performance I seek.

Does gaining another 1 to 1.5 per cent of performance justify the $75 to more than $100 per row it will cost to make the units as good as possible? Tell a farmer he needs to spend $1200 on his 12 seed meters after he just dropped $4000 on new disk openers and other mechanical necessities, and the first question is, "How far off ARE the meters?" Nine out of ten farmers eventually decide that 98 percent is close enough to perfect for them. 

Would it generate enough extra yield from seed meters honed to 100 per cent performance to offset the cost of perfecting them? I don't know. There are so many other variables between planting season and harvest, and because corn is so flexible and resilient, it's tough to know if the farmer will see yield reductions due to 1 per cent less accuracy at planting.

As a mechanic, I want things as close to perfect as possible. My goal is 100 per cent accuracy from seed meters, perfect placement of seeds in the seed furrow, perfect firming of the soil over the seeds and therefore perfect spacing and perfect germination. Whether or not customers are willing to pay for that perfection is up to them.


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