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August 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.

Top Four Questions About Modern Combines

Aug 25, 2013

 Modern combines have computers and sensors and diagnostic systems akin to the Space Shuttle. All those computers raise a lot of questions for operators used to old-school combines. In no particular order, here are four questions commonly asked as farmers prep for harvest this fall:

-Question: "Do I HAVE to pay you to update the software?"

Answer" Modern combines have between 5 and 15 separate computers hidden in various places on the machine. Each has its own "software package" that tells it how to operate. Combine manufacturers are CONSTANTLY tweaking software packages to "improve and enhance" performance--computer-speak for, "Oops, we found a bug or glitch that we need to fix." So the answer is, No, you don't have to pay to have the software upgraded. But there's a reason for the upgrade, and if you have problems with that combine system this fall, the first thing the mechanic will HAVE to do to diagnose the problem is...upgrade the software to possibly cure the hidden bug or glitch.

-Question: "A warning code keeps coming up on the screen every time I start the combine. I can clear it, but it's a nuisance. How do I keep it from coming back?"

Answer: If a warning code can be cleared, it means the combine thinks something is wrong somewhere in the machine, but the problem isn't currently bad enough to cause catastrophic damage.  The next time the code comes up, write down the numbers and explanation, call the dealership and let them determine how quickly you need a service call and what it will entail. If a warning code CAN'T be cleared, the problem needs to be addressed immediately.

-Question: My grain yield monitor is inaccurate; or, my autosteering system wanders like a drunken snake; or, my automatic header float control hops like a bunny rabbit. What's wrong?

Answer: Any system that "automatically" does things on a combine probably has sensors that allow the machine's computers to monitor and adjust that system's performance.  Those sensors must not only be calibrated before operation, but can require recalibration during the season due to wear in mechanical linkages, etc. "Automatic" systems that misbehave usually generate a warning code that tells which sensor is causing the problem. Note the warning code, use it to identify which sensor is out of range, then try to recalibrate to clear the problem. If recalibration doesn't cure the problem, it's probably time for a call to the dealership, 'cause sensor diagnostics can be tricky.

-Question: I'm tired of calibrating sensors, clearing codes and messing with all this computerized foolishness. I don't want to fly to the moon---I just want to harvest crops. Can I get a combine without all this complicated stuff on it?

Answer: I think there are foreign manufacturers who still make bare-bones combines. But you'll be operating a 4-row, low-powered combine without air conditioning, without a stero system, without a yield monitor, without an automatic header height control system, without grain loss sensing, without low shaft speed monitoring, and without rear-view cameras. You'll have to steer it yourself, the cab will be screaming loud because all the hydraulic valves and controls will be mounted in or under the cab, and  you'll have to get out of the cab and turn levers and rotate cranks to adjust the concave, rotor speed, sieves, cleaning fan and other adjustments. You'll come home every night filthy dirty and dog-tired, and finish harvest sometime after Christmas because of the limited capacity of the old-school machine--and you'll be working alone, because your wife or father or father-in-law will refuse to run that bare-bones but "simple" combine.

(If, by this time you're grinning, you're a modern farmer. If you're reaching for the phone to order one of those combines, you're a tough old bird, pretty darn stubborn, and I salute you.)

A New Approach To Field Repairs

Aug 18, 2013

 There was a fad a couple years ago where farmers set up or built super-duty service trucks to make field repairs. They'd buy an old pickup truck or dually, build or add tool boxes, a welder/generator, an air compressor, maybe a fuel and oil tank, and it would be their repair shop on wheels.

Lately I'm seeing a trend where farmers put together a repair "pallet" that they slide in and out of whatever pickup truck is available to go to the field for repairs. One farmer simply took a wooden seed corn pallet, reinforced its surface with a sheet of 3/4-inch exterior plywood, and bolted an air compressor, welder/generator, and a large toolbox to that pallet. Another farmer used thin-wall boxed tubing and sheet steel to make a pallet to which he welded brackets that allow him to temporarily bolt a welder, air compressor, toolbox, etc. to the pallet. Either design allows the farmer to use a forklift to slide his repair kit into the back of a pickup truck during fieldwork so the essentials for repairs are readily available. During the off-season, the pallet is removed and the truck is available for normal farm abuse.

There are dozens of variations on the design. Some are carefully thought out and provide easy access to tools, spare parts and utensils used for repairs. I've noticed the designs evolve year after year, as each farmer customizes which tools are easy to reach and which ones require crawling into the bed of the truck to access.

There are local farmers who stil have dedicated service trucks, but they tend to be large operators with a full-time mechanic who makes repairs at multiple locations throughout the year. Those guys make good use of a truck with a utility box, a hydraulic boom and the benefits of having all their tools and many extra parts constantly loaded in what effectively becomes a rolling repair shop.

But for an average farmer, it makes good sense to have the basic tools and devices commonly used for field repairs set up so they're self-contained and easily loaded and unloaded from whatever pick-up truck is available. It's cool to have a full-time service truck loaded with every possible tool, but slide-in, slide-out field repair pallets are a better "fit" for farmers who don't make all their repairs out of the back of a truck.

More On Ag Careers

Aug 15, 2013

 A few more thoughts on who will repair tractors in the next 20 years:

It used to be that the guys who worked at equipment dealerships, grain elevators, seed dealers and other local ag-support industries were farm kids who couldn't find an opportunity to farm, didn't want to farm but wanted to stay close to agriculture, or simply needed a steady job in a small rural town. Today there are fewer and fewer farm kids so there are fewer and fewer ag-trained people available for ag-service jobs. When I was growing up, at times there were a total of 15 kids living on our square mile. Today there are zero kids on that same mile. So not only are there dramatically fewer kids growing up and learning to be farmers, but there equally fewer kids growing up to fill farm-related jobs in nearby towns.

As for whether or not society is over-emphaszing a 4-year college degree as "necessary" for success: If success is measured in how much a person gets paid, I don't know if there will ever be a time when the mechanics, plumbers and "fixers" in society get paid as much as the paper pushers. Perhaps I'm cynical, but I think that as long as the paper pushers are the ones who set wages for the fixers, the fixers will always make less than the paper pushers. 

An excellent comment was made that a four-year degree now often comes at the price of a hefty student loan. A lot of students could avoid burdensome loans by connecting with an apprenticeship program. Our dealership helps fund the education of students who attend a two-year tech program. The students not only get a significant amount of their education paid for, but get paid a modest wage while doing work-study at the dealership as part of the training.

(Yes, their pay is low, and yes, they have to sign a contract promising they will work for the dealership for a specific period of time after graduation, but, hey--I shoveled a lot of hog pens for free during my "apprenticeship" on the family farm.)

Finally, I return to a theme I've touched on several times in recent years in my blogs: farmers underestimate what they know. It's not until you try to train a "city kid" to work in an agricultural situation that you realize how much highly specialized, incredibly complicated knowledge farmers have absorbed since they were old enough to follow their dad to the field. Never underestimate the skill sets you must possess to simply get through a single day on your farm. Those skills are being passed to fewer and fewer young people, whether they use them to return to the farm or to work in ag-related jobs.

Jobs Without Flip-Flops

Aug 11, 2013

 Talk with the manager of any service-oriented business and there's a common complaint: "We can't find qualified workers." It's the same where I work--our dealership desperately needs experienced mechanics. We're not alone--I have relatives in plumbing and heating who say they never have enough journeymen to meet their customers' needs. The same goes for nearly any vocation that requires hands-on technical skills and experience.

I'll be indelicate to make a point: decades ago it was common for the kids who weren't interested in math and grammar and chemistry to gravitate toward the industrial shop and technical trades classes, where they learned how to work on cars and equipment, and ended up making a good living fixing things. That may still be the case, but many of the technical trades now require significant math and chemistry and other curriculums because of the complexity of modern machinery.  Every mechanic in the dealership where I work as at least a two-year technical degree, and a couple have four-year Bachelor of Science degrees. Quite frankly, you've got to have some smarts to fix things nowadays.

Our society may be under-valuing educations in technical trades. There are stable, comfortable-income careers waiting for young people--or laid-off middle-aged people--in the service industry. And they are stable careers. Financial businesses lay off employees at every twinge of the stock market, and computer companies are nearly as fickle. But there are always cars that need fixed, tractors that need repaired, and plumbing that needs plumbed. The service industry, for the most part, is recession-resistant.

The problem with working in the service industry, especially the agricultural service industry, is the working conditions and the hours. Everybody seems to want a job where they can write software while wearing flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt. Service jobs are physically demanding and often uncomfortable. You get greasy, dirty, and as a farm equipment mechanic you work long hours in snotty weather spring, summer and fall. (In the winter you just get greasy, dirty and do physically demanding and uncomfortable work, but at least you're in a warm shop.)

I have no clever close for this blog. I have no solution for the looming shortage of service workers qualified to work on complicated, high-tech equipment. But in the not-too distant future I can see where someone willing to get dirty could make a living comparable to those who now make their living in Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops.

Read more of Dan's thoughts on ag careers.

Make Your Mechanic Happy And Save Yourself Money

Aug 08, 2013

 One of the more frustrating situations for mechanics is have to charge customers more than their repairs cost. I'm not talking about price-gouging--I'm talking about the extra time it takes to remove accessories and add-ons, and then re-installing them after repairs have been made.

Tractor loaders are good examples. If a mechanic has to do major engine or transmission work on a tractor with a loader on it, then the customer pays for the mechanic to remove the loader and reinstall it. If a combine cornhead has "stalk stompers" installed to crush corn stalks, the customer pays for the time to get the stompers out of the way if they interfere with access to the cornhead driveshafts or gearboxes.

Sometimes it's not mechanical stuff that costs customers extra money. Livestock growers who bring chore tractors caked with manure and mud often end up paying for an hour or more of time spent simply steam-washing off the grunge. The same applies, to a lesser degree, if a mechanic has to work inside a tractor or combine cab and has to dig his way through layers of clothing, beverage cans, notebooks, and assorted wiring harnesses for accessory monitors, smart phones, laptops or video display screens. I've had to add an extra hour to repair bills because of the time it took to unfasten brackets and holders for extra spray monitors, GPS screens or other gadgetry that prevented me from simply removing four Phillips-head screws that held a cornerpost display--and then re-installing them after I did a 25-minute repair to the display.

I also know a mechanic who got chewed out by a customer for the cost of major repairs to a tractor. The customer was annoyed because his bill was significantly larger than a neighbor who had similar repairs done. It was only after the mechanic walked him through the repair bill and explained that the higher labor fee was due to several hours spent washing layers of caked manure off the tractor, then removing a rusty, bent and sprung loader, that the customer acknowledged that the charges were appropriate. 

I'm not complaining. Sometimes cleaning manure, rotten grain, raccoon droppings, or removing accessories is just part of the job of being a farm equipment mechanic. But that means those chores also become part of the bill for repairs to that equipment.

Do Hilly Fields Have More Value?

Aug 04, 2013

 I've had interesting discussions over the years about the old question, "Are there more acres in a hilly field than in a flat field?" At one point I did a lot of research in hope of doing a Farm Journal story that would answer the question. I found experts at Iowa State University, along with some geo-mapping guys with the federal goverment, and they pretty much confirmed that, in theory, a hilly field has more acres than a flat field.

Their proof involved a LOT of mathematics, but their explanation was simple enough for me to understand: Imagine a 4-foot by 4-foot blanket spread on a flat floor. Draw a chalkline around the perimeter of the blanket. Place a basketball or large object under the center of the blanket, and the edge of the blanket no longer touches the chalked outline.

So, their conclusion was that, back when the government calculated acres by running a gizmo over printed aerial maps that measured only the borders of the fields in two dimensions, there was no way to allow for additional acres created by the third dimension of altitude.

They all agreed that it would take some big hills with steep sides and long slopes to add significant acres to a field. But the differences were mathematically calculable and they were confident that acres calculated from 2-dimensional aerial maps were at least slightly "off" to the actual surface acres in 3-D.

Things got complicated when they took into consideration that the original survey of land in the United States was done over hill and dale using mechanical measuring devices, which SHOULD have accounted for the third dimension. I'm not a surveyor or civil engineer--perhaps there's a way to adjust for those variations.

But that brings us to why I brought this topic to an "In The Shop" blog: perhaps this helps explain why some yield monitors, acre counters and GPS-guided steering systems come up with "odd" acres compared to the field acres fathers and grandfathers have used for years. I've been involved with discussions by experts in precision farming/GPS mapping who believed the differences were due to machine-based mapping systems following the exact terrain, compared to aerial maps in two dimensions that couldn't account for subtle increases in acreage in hilly fields.

I'll leave the arguing about precise acreage in hilly fields to people smarter than me. What I can confirm is that there is more corn in a crooked row than in a straight row. Maybe only a dozen or more kernels in a quarter mile row, but enough so I always used "increased yields"  as justification for never being able to plant a perfectly straight row.

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