Jul 11, 2014
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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.

Happiness Is A Fine-Toothed Ratchet Wrench

Jul 01, 2014

 Even though they're expensive, high-quality fine-toothed ratchet wrenches make me happy. I like their precision, and I enjoy their ability to ratchet in tight quarters where a coarse-toothed ratchet wrench doesn't have room to "click" and get a fresh bite.

Other mechanics are perfectly content with a more economical coarse-toothed ratchet wrench. It seems that for every tool I like, there's someone who likes a different version of that tool.

The reason for my ponderings on tool preferences is based on a conversation I had to day with a customer. We were talking about his line of equipment, which is well-cared for, but "mature." He made the comment that he had no use for autosteer and was totally content to steer his equipment himself. He said the happiest place on the planet for him was to be in his fields driving his "mature" equipment, and that it would make him unhappy to farm with a huge equipment loan hanging over his head.

I've got other customers for whom their happiest days are when they drive new equipment  home. They've arranged their finances and farming so that they get something new every year. They truly enjoy studying owner's manuals and learning all the nuances of each piece of new equipment. One of them once told me that it gives him peace of mind to trade combines every year so that every breakdown is covered by a full parts and labor warranty. He said he'd spent too many years fixing combines himself, and it made him happy to call the dealership for warrantied repairs on his combine.

There's a moral somewhere to these stories, but I'm not sure what it is. I like fine-toothed ratchet wrenches; other people don't. I'm not right and they're not wrong. I guess as long as we're both happy, then life is good.

Bearing Removal Without A Torch

Jun 26, 2014

 Most of the time it seems when I need to remove a frozen bearing from a shaft, it's in a tight spot or buried in the machine. So an acetylene torch is often the fastest way to get things apart. A torch is messy, potentially dangerous, and inelegant, but effective. The same has been said about me, so I guess I'm a good match for a torch.

But there are times when a bearing is out in the open and accessible, and I'm glad to use a die grinder with a cut-off wheel to quickly and surgically remove the bearing. Today I was in a situation where the bearing was on the end of a shaft and there was plenty of room around it, so I grabbed my die grinder. I made two cuts 180 degrees apart to split the outer race, then carefully cut through the inner race without marring the shaft. It took a total of 5 minutes, and avoided the flames, sparks, soot and heat that would have been part of torching the bearing.

It's not always possible to use an air-powered die grinder and cut-off wheel to dissect bearings, but when circumstances permit, it's a quick, clean way to get the job done. 

A Third Hand When You Need It

Jun 20, 2014

 Cable winches and motorcycle tie-down straps are probably more correctly accessories, but they're indispensible tools for me.

I have several cable winches, commonly called "come-alongs" in our neighborhood, that I use almost weekly for a variety of tasks. The one I use most often has only a 2000 pound lift capacity, but it's light enough and small enough to get into tight places where I can use it to lift a gear case into place, hoist a countershaft assembly, or pull a subframe into alignment. It took awhile for me to wrap my head around what I can do with a cable winch, but now I immediately think "come-along" whenever something heavy or awkward needs lifted or pulled.

I'm even more fond of the half-dozen motorcycle tie-downs left over from my motorcycling days. They're one-inch wide nylon straps, maybe 6 feet long, with a sturdy hook on each end and an adjusting mechanism that locks in place with a gnurled cam. Their length is infinitely adjustable, making them handy when I need to precisely suspend a shaft or hold some component in place. Motorcycle tie-downs aren't a "simple machine" like we learned about in physics, so if I want to suspend a 50-pound gearcase with a tie-down, I have to physically lift the 50 pounds while taking the slack out of the tie-down. 

There are times when it's nice to have the mechanical advantage of the cable winch to lift really heavy objects. But there are times when it's more convenient to have the flexibility of the nylon straps and smaller size/weight of the tie-downs.

Most farmers have a dusty, often rusty cable winch hanging on a wall somewhere. Many farmers have tie-downs to secure their ATV or 4-wheeler during transport in a pickup or on a trailer. If they use the cable winch only once a year, and the tie-downs only as tie-dpwns, they're missing the advantages of a having a third hand when lifting or positioning heavy or clumsy components during repairs.

Yes, I"m Guilty Of Up-Selling

Jun 12, 2014

 A customer good-naturedly recently accused me of up-selling equipment. He had asked my opinion as a mechanic on options and accessories for a new planter he was thinking about buying. After we discussed his goals and concerns, I suggested that maybe he needed to get a bigger planter than he was thinking about. He smiled and asked if I was going to get a commission from the sales department if he bought a bigger planter. 

Nope, there's no monetary gain in it for me if he buys a bigger planter. The only gain is if he gets done sooner with his planting and is a happier customer. That's my goal---customers who are pleased with the results they get from the machinery they purchase.

It's tough to write a check for any piece of equipment. It's even tougher to write a bigger check for a bigger piece of equipment. But the past few years have emphasized the benefits of being able to cover ground quickly and accurately when planting. The window of opportunity to get in and "get 'er done" seems to be getting smaller smaller each spring. I've never had a customer regret jumping from an 8- to a 12-row, a 12- to a 16-row, or a 16- to a 24-row planter. They were always glad that the bigger planters let them cover acres faster.

Yes, there are farmers who wring every bit of value out of their equipment, guys who farm 2000 acres with an 8-row planter. If they're happy, I'm happy. But on the other end of the spectrum, I know farmers who planted their entire corn crop in five days this spring. Not necessarily five consecutive days, but five days there were "right" for planting. They were able to wait till the ground was actually ready to plant, and didn't have to start planting in cold mud in order to cover all their ground.

So, if you ask me the best options you can put on a planter, I might suggest extra rows. There are lots of gee-whiz electronic bells and whistles that can be added to modern planters, but in my mind, extra row-units pay a nice return on investment. 

The Season of Desperation

Jun 07, 2014

 The post-emerge spraying season is a time of desperation. Whether it's a commercial sprayer or a farmer with his own machine, there's a limited window of opportunity to get all the fast-growing crops sprayed before they get too big. Add the frequent, unpredicatable rains of June, and the stage is set for frustrated customers and mechanics.

Let's say Joe Blow from 150 miles away shopped the internet last winter, and found the sweet deal he wanted on a sprayer at your dealership. Now, six months later, Joe can't figure out why his spray rate keeps fluctuating. He's not technically-oriented, has little patience for asking/answering questions over the phone, and wants a mechanic to come fix the sprayer right now as part of the one-year warranty he got when he purchased the machine. Does the dealership immediately send a mechanic for the all-day-or-longer trip, or take care of loyal local customers first, and schedule a service call to the foreign customer once the locals are taken care of?

Or, how about if a mechanic's cell phone rings and it's a call from a farmer from across the state who got the number from his cousin who is a loyal local customer of the dealership. The cross-state farmer is having trouble with his sprayer. His nearby dealership can't or won't help him, and his cousin recommended he call the mechanic because the mechanic is an ace at fixing things. How much time does the mechanic spend on the phone trying to help the stranger who will never buy anything from the dealership? 

Then there's the situation where a mechanic is desperately pulling wrenches in the shop on a customer's sprayer, trying to get it back in the field before the heavy rains forecasted for the next day. Another customer strides into the shop and demands answers to why his sprayer isn't working. With luck, the mechanic can keep working on the sprayer at hand while answering the walk-in questions, but if the walk-in requires technical advice found only in tech books, how much time does the mechanic spend away from the machine he's supposed to be working on? And does he charge the walk-in for the 15 to 20 minutes he spent away from his assigned work?

In most cases service managers deal with such questions and decide who gets helped and who doesn't. But sometimes customers want to deal with hands-on mechanics rather than managers, and either call the mechanic directly or walk into the shop with questions.

It almost makes a mechanic yearn for the 8 weeks of fixing combines during harvest, when things are intense, but not quite so desperate.

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