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May 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.

48-Row Planter Follow-up

May 31, 2009
 Earlier this spring I mentioned there was a prototype 48-row planter running in our territory. The 120-foot wide machine drew a lot of attention and provided some interesting points to ponder:

The farmer who ran it says he averaged 80 acres an hour when he was actually planting. Folding, unfolding, filling, and transporting took a lot of time, so he averaged 500 to 700 acres per day over the entire planting season. The big planter was most at home in big fields--he noted that in fields of 80 acres or less, he spent as much time fussing with endrows and corners as he did planting the body of the fields. In 40- to 60-acre fields with irregular borders, he admitted that he may have lost time due to the sheer size of the planter. 

Another interesting comment the farmer made was that he had to pre-plan his movements between fields to accommodate the turning radius of the big planter. He farms in several counties, and noted that one county's rural roads tended to have tight, sharp corners at gravel road intersections, while another county had intersections with larger radiuses. There were several times when he had to go "the long way around" to get from Field A to Field B, simply because scouting had proved the most direct route had corners the planter simply couldn't turn without putting the tractor or planter in the ditch.

One thing the farmer noted was that if he chooses to buy a 48-row planter in the future, he will have to rethink the way he chooses and distributes seed varieties. "You loose a lot of the advantages of such a big planter if you can't just fill the seed tanks and plant," he said. "I'd have to figure out half a dozen good hybrids, and cut back on switching varieties so often."

The farmer also had to rebuild several of his field driveways, making them wider and flattening them. Driveways into fields lower than the road were the biggest concern---the mid-section of the planter would drag on the shoulder of the road if the angle of the driveway into the field was too steep.

Ultimately, the farmer was satisfied with his experience. He commented that after a wet spell, the big machine and 24-hour days allowed him to get his planting finished on schedule. There were a few breakdowns, as might be expected from a prototype, and there was a steep learning curve the first few days as the farmer and his crew scrambled to adjust their logistics to keep seed to the planter and ground worked ahead of it. 

The farmer previously used a 36-row planter on his 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans. When asked if he'll trade his 36-row for a 48-row next year, when they are officially released, he paused, shrugged, and said, "I'm going to have to do a lot of thinking and figuring."

A "Third Hand"

May 25, 2009
 Most of my tools are in my toolboxes at the dealership, or loaded in my service truck, but I have a few carefully selected tools in my garage at home. I avoid having duplicate tools at home and at work, unless they are gotta-have tools for basic repair work, or tools so useful that I'm willing to pay the price of having two of the same tool.

Motorcycle tie-down straps, a cable winch and a set of pry bars are tools well worth the cost of duplication. The common thread among those three gadgets is that they allow one man to do the work of two men.

Motorcycle tie downs are obviously great for lashing things into the back of trucks or onto trailers. But they are invaluable for holding small gearboxes in place during removal or installation; they work great for holding any medium-weight component out of the way while working beneath or behind them. They're infinitely adjustable and I've used them numerous times to hold a gearbox or other assembly in place while I aligned components or installed mounting bolts.

Cable winches, commonly called "come-alongs" in our neighborhood, allow me to be as strong as I used to think I was. Pulling a combine feederhouse the last inch or so into position is MUCH easier by winching it into position than to manhandle it as I foolishly did when I was younger and back strains healed more quickly. The same goes for any situation where you can't get a tractor loader to hydraulically lift or pull components into position. It's much easier to ratchet the handle of a 1- or 2-ton cable winch to pull a concave into position than it is to pry, pound and lift it into place.

Speaking of prying, pry bars are the third tool I willingly pay to have both at work and at home. Think of how many times you've used a big screwdriver to pry on components during repairs. Imagine how much more leverage you would have had if the tool was not only 2, 3, maybe 4 or 5 feet longer, but had a tip and shank designed to withstand the rigors of prying. If there are universal tools that every mechanic has beyond the requisite hammers and wrenches, I'll wager it is a variety of pry bars in a range of sizes. Mine range from a 6-incher up to a 6-footer. In our shop we jokingly refer to pry bars as, "equalizers" because with enough leverage, a lone mechanic can lift, pry, wedge or move objects that would otherwise take two men.

Or in my case, lift, pry, wedge or move objects that I would have done with brute strength and youthful disregard for injury, 25 years ago.

Shop Door Suggestions

May 18, 2009
 In the Early Spring issue of Farm Journal Magazine my story, "Doorway Dilemma" looks at issues related to doors necessary to get modern farm equipment in and out of farm shops. Here are a few leftover items that didn't make my final edit, along with some points that door manufacturers emphasize:

-A simple add-on that costs $25 to $50 but is well worth the price is to put a remote control opener on the door. It saves a lot of climbing in and out of tractor and combine cabs. At our dealership we put the little remote control box on a 3-foot-long loop of 1/4-inch i.d. clear plastic hose. Its like a big necklace. That necklace hangs on a peg by the wall-mounted control box. When somebody goes out to get a piece of equipment, they grab the necklace and wear it around their neck, opening and closing the door from the seat of the cab. The large, somewhat cumbersome necklace prevents people from putting the small control box in their pocket and forgetting to return it to its peg for other people to use.

-Small grain platforms are often the widest piece of equipment to pass through shop doors. It's possible to squeeze a 30-foot platform through a 32-foot-wide door, but sooner or later "somebody" is going to misjudge the opening and damage the door or the side of the platform. Door manufacturers recommend door openings at least four feet wider than the widest piece of equipment, and encourage farmers to plan for larger equipment in the future. Remember when your grandpa or dad built your current shop, and said, "There'll never been any reason to have a door wider than 24 feet, because they'll never make anything bigger than 8-row equipment...'? 

-If you're putting the door in the end wall of a building, plan on a door at least  8 feet narrower than the width of the building. The goal is to have at least 4 feet of wall on each side of the door to provide structural strength. For example, a 36-foot wide door should be placed in a wall at least 44 feet wide.

-One-piece doors--essentially a wall section that's hinged at the top--provide a unique option: When open, they project out from the building and provide a sunshade, effectively expanding the floor space of the shop for work during warm weather. There is some concern about the stability of open doors on windy days. Manufacturers say that the doors are designed to withstand "normal" winds while in the open position, but recommend common sense when storms approach or when winds are excessively high. One manufacturer has documented evidence of a 54-foot-wide one-piece door withstanding 70 mph winds when it was left open during a thunderstorm at an airport, but admits he prefers his doors be closed when winds exceed 40 mph.

-One-piece door manufacturers admit one concern with that type of design is if someone is working in a building and decides to open the door, unaware that someone else parked a vehicle in front of the door. One-piece doors have a fairly large opening arc, and there have been cases where a one-piece door caught the front bumper of a vehicle and literally lifted it into the air--until the bumper came off or the door's opening mechanism or frame failed.

-The universal comment from overhead, bi-fold and one-piece door manufacturers was that the type and size of door should be part of the initial design of the building. They emphasized that each type of door requires different structural framing. Telling the building designer what type of door will be installed can save significant money by incorporating the necessary framing in the building, rather than having to add-on once the building is finished.

Got any personal experiences--good or bad--with the big door on your farm shop? We'd like to hear about them. Your experiences could save other farmers lots of money and avoid hassles.

Spend Money To Save Money?

May 17, 2009
Here's the dilemma: Several wheel lift cylinders on a 15-year-old planter were leaking badly enough to affect how well the planter raised and lowered. On disassembly, the mechanic found damaged seals due to pitting on their chromed shafts. The inside of the cylinder's bore was visibly worn, but not scored or scratched.

A new seal kit cost more than $100 per cylinder. Labor, including time spent removing, rebuilding and reinstalling each cylinder, was more than $200. So, $300 per cylinder to "fix" the leaky seals and put the planter back in the field.

But the pitted rams are going to work a real hardship on the new seals. Experience has taught that the cylinders will be leaking again within year or two. New chromed rams cost $150 each. Fixing the actual cause of the leaky seals--replacing the rams--brings the total per cylinder to $450. And that is if the "old" cylinder bores were used--undamaged, but several thousandths of an inch less than optimally tight around each cylinder's piston.

Brand new cylinders cost $550 each. The mechanic explained the cause of the leaks, compared various "fixes," and priced the options. The customer and the mechanic discussed what will happen when the new seals encounter the corroded spots on the chromed shafts, how well the new seals will "seat" in the worn cylinder bores, and other considerations. Including how many acres the customer plants each year, how long he intends to keep that planter, and how adverse he is to possible breakdowns related to those cylinders during future planting seasons.

The cheapest option was to spend $300 per cylinder to finish planting this spring. For $550 per cylinder (plus around $200 labor to remove the old cylinders and install the new ones) he would have brand new cylinders. The customer looked at the mechanic and asked, "What would you do if it was yours?"

At this point in my life, if I could possibly afford the extra money, I'd put on new cylinders. They're guaranteed for parts and labor for a year and I'm confident they'd operate trouble-free for at least another 15 years. But it wasn't my planter, and it wasn't my money.

What do you think the customer chose to do?

"In The Shop" Chemistry Lesson

May 11, 2009
 This is purely hypothetical, because nobody would be this stupid. But for the sake of education and entertainment, suppose that somebody needed trash barrels for his home workshop and, uh, "acquired" some nice, big plastic barrels used to ship battery acid to farm equipment dealerships.

And let's suppose that person carefully used a saw to remove the tops of the plastic barrels. Once the tops were off, that person noted there was liquid residue in the bottom of the barrels--maybe a couple quarts in each barrel. The odor reminded this genius that the liquid was probably concentrated battery acid, so he decided to use a garden hose to add a couple gallons of water to each barrel, then he...

...tipped the barrels over onto his crushed limestone driveway, with the intent that the liquids would drain down and into the driveway and maybe even provide weed control for the rest of the summer. 

Those of you who actually paid attention in high school chemistry class probably saw the words "concentrated acid" and "crushed limestone" in the previous paragraphs and predicted what would happen. This fellow was blissfully unaware of what happens when a concentrated acid meets a strong base, but quickly learned that the result is an immediate and near-violent chemical reaction.

For a brief moment the hissing, steaming, bubbling, frothing chemical reaction was kind of cool and actually entertaining, until the fellow realized that the whole mess was creeping downhill toward his wife's prized bed of perennial flowers. "Dilution" seemed like a reasonable solution, so he grabbed the garden hose and started "diluting" his creation. Which merely enhanced the chemical reaction, increased its volume, and sped its flow toward the flowerbed.

Long story short, the next five minutes were spent in frantic efforts with shovel and rake to dam, divert and control the bubbling, frothing, steaming tide. Our hero was able to save the flowerbed, but the upper surface of his crushed limestone driveway was converted to a milky paste that eventually hardened into an incriminating crust that caused his wife to ask, "What happened to the driveway?" when she got home later that evening.

The fellow muttered something to pacify his wife, then manhandled his newly rinsed trash barrels into his shop and became VERY busy working on the lawnmower. 

End of chemistry lesson.

To Wrench Or Not To Wrench...

May 03, 2009
Farmer's attitudes toward do-it-yourself repairs range from those who routinely overhaul their own engines and transmissions to farmers who take their tractors to a mechanic to merely change the engine oil. The odd similarity between both extremes in attitude is that both justify their choices by, "It saves me money."

It's obvious that the farmer who does most of his own mechanical repairs saves himself the cost of paying a mechanic to do the work. What's not so obvious is the financial advantage gained by farmers who prefer to have others do their mechanical work.

I once asked one of those non-mechanical farmers whether he wanted me to do some simple repairs to his equipment, or if he would prefer to save money by doing the repairs himself. His answer offered me a perspective I hadn't considered:

"In the long run, it's cheaper for me to pay you to do the work," he said. "I love to farm, but I don't like working on equipment. What I like, what I'm good at, is marketing and crop production. I enjoy sitting at a computer doing break-evens, or walking through fields scouting and analyzing crop performance. I'm good at those things. I can work on equipment if I have to, but don't especially enjoy it, don't have a fancy shop, don't have lots of tools. I've got neighbors who do all their own repair work, but then pay financial advisors and marketing consultants and crop scouting services to do all the stuff I prefer to do for myself. They think I'm nuts for paying to have all my repairs done, and I think they're crazy to pay somebody to tell them how to do their marketing and manage their crops."

As the song says, "Different strokes for different folks."

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