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October 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.

Wrenching In The Dark

Oct 30, 2013

 Harvest is delayed in many parts of the country, Daylight Savings Time ends this weekend, and we're going to spend far too much time fumbling around machinery after sunset as we wrap up this year's harvest. Here are some options to prevent cursing the darkness:

-good old D-cell flashlights. They work, they're cheap and we've all got one rolling around under our pickup's seat. But unless you're an expert at clamping one of them in your armpit while you make repairs, they're pretty much an inspection tool.

-120-volt or battery-powered "trouble lights" come in dozens of sizes and designs. Some have incandescent bulbs, many have flourescent bulbs, and the latest versions have LED lights. Depending on the design, they may have magnets or hooks or small stands to position them to shine their light on specific parts of the machine. Good for repairs and maintenance, a little bulky for quick inspections.

-pocket flashlights now come in a variety of designs. Pencil-style flashlights with LED bulbs can provide surprising illumination and are easy to carry in a shirt pocket. I use a variation that is about 4-inches long, an inch in diameter, and admittedly clunky in my shirt pocket---but the little rascal puts out a lot of light. Probably best used for inspections and quick work after dark, but I've used mine for a lot of repairs and maintenance work, to the point where it would be wise for me to buy the optional rubber sleeve that fits around the barrel, so my teeth aren't biting metal when I hold it in my mouth to free up both hands. No kidding--some of the pocket lights have rubber sleeves just so you can comfortably hold them in your teeth if necessary.

-"hat lights" come in a variety of designs. Some are the traditional coon-hunter headbands, that use battery packs and LED lights mounted on a headband so that wherever you look, that's where the light is aimed. There are smaller units that clip or clamp onto the brim of baseball-style caps. A third option is a baseball cap that has two or three LED lights built into the brim. They aren't obnoxiously large bulbs, and you simply squeeze a button or slide a switch to turn on the lights. I've never used them, don't know how bright they are or how long the batteries last, but...any light is better than no light when the combine, grain cart, bin auger or trailer brakes are making funny noises in the middle of the darkest field you farm.

The Risks Of Harvesting Frost

Oct 27, 2013

 This year's delayed harvest across the Corn Belt is tempting many farmers to combine frost-covered corn early in the morning. Don't do it. I've already dug out/unplugged two combines that had their sieves plugged as a consequence of harvesting frosty corn.

Yes, everything is hunky-dory and works great right after dawn, when the frost is "crisp" and the combine's innards are at ambient temperature. But as the sun comes out and the frost begins to melt, or the combine's innards warm up above freezing, the mixture of watery mist and corn dust passing through the sieves creates a pasty sludge that builds up and eventually plugs the combine. Big-time. 

The only cure for a frost-plugged combine is to either crawl inside and manually scrape clean the louvers on the sieves, use a pressure washer to (hopefully) blow the stuff off the sieves, or in extreme cases, unbolt and remove the entire sieve so it can be pressure-washed.

The same problem will occur if harvest continues to drag and we get snow on unharvested cornfields. Even worse is if we get snowfall, then a couple days of unrelenting below-freezing weather. Those who try to harvest corn with snow on the ears and subsequently freeze-up their sieves with icy mud have only two choices: find a heated shop where they can park the machine and let it thaw out, or wait until the weather warms up enough to thaw the machine "naturally."

And--if you're in an area where corn is severely lodged due to wind damage earlier this year, be cautious when running your cornhead's snouts low in an attempt to pick up every stalk possible--especially if the ground is muddy and soft. Many times the root ball of lodged stalks gets pulled into the machine. Combines are not designed to process wet dirt. If the auger trough on your corn head is lined with hardened mud after harvesting a field of badly lodged corn, take time to check your sieves--I've had cases where I had to crawl inside and chip layers of hardened mud off the upper sieves and shaker pans. 

The farmers were really impressed how much better their combines worked, after there was enough room in the sieves for grain to fall through...

Farm Dogs

Oct 22, 2013

 I hope I'm wrong, but I'm not seeing as many farm dogs as I used to when I make service calls. Back in the day, every farmstead had one or more resident mongrels that were as much a part of the farm family as the youngest son. Sometimes MORE a part of the family than the youngest son, but I digress...

I'm not sure why there seem to be fewer farm dogs. Perhaps it's because farms now cover multiple farmsteads, or because the wife works in town and there's nobody at home to care for the mutt. But in my experience, the farm dog population is off 30 percent compared to 20 years ago.

Farm dogs are extensions of their masters. "Levi" was a Newfoundland Retriever, only slightly smaller than a Shetland Pony. His owner was known to be testy when it came to traveling salesmen, and Levi became legendary among those who attempted to make their living selling feed, vet supplies and welding tools to farmers in our area. Levi and his owner often teamed up in warm weather to ambush a new salesman. When the salesman drove in with his windows rolled down on a  hot day, the farmer would make a point of approaching the car from the passenger side, drawing the salesman's attention in that direction. Levi learned to quietly approach the car from the driver's side, put his head through the driver's window at the same level as the salesman's head, and announce his presence with a subsonic growl that prompted one salesman to scramble across the front seat, dive out the passenger window and cower behind the grinning farmer.

For years I kept a day-old sandwich in my service truck to pacify farm dogs that had doubts about my right to be on their farm and working on their farm equipment. A couple chunks of sandwich tossed out the window usually convinced them I was an all-right guy and welcome to exit the truck.

That worked on every dog except one, an evil, conniving Blue Heeler with whom I had an ongoing feud. The beast would literally slink under a machine or behind a building when I drove in, and wait for me to exit the vehicle. He apparently had a knack for mathematics and an expert eye for measurements, because he'd invariably wait till I was exactly halfway between my truck and the safety of the machine/machine shed before he launched his patented silent attack, darting from behind to try and literally "tear me a new one." I consider myself a dog lover, but can't say I was upset when that dog went to doggy heaven. 

The other extreme of farm dogs was "Barney," a mutt that loved to ride in vehicles. He didn't care WHOSE vehicle it was--if the motor was running, Barney was ready to ride. More than once when I was working on a piece of equipment, if I had left the door of my truck open, Barney was happily waiting in the passenger seat when I got ready to leave. For a long time I thought it was because of my animal magnetism, but the local vet, feed deliveryman, and various neighbors assured me that Barney was an equal-opportunity hitchhiker, a sucker for an open door and the potential for a ride with his head out the window.

I hope I'm wrong that farm dogs are a fading part of farming. There's something special about a mud-spattered pickup truck with a farm dog standing in the bed with his front feet on a bale of hay, his ears and tongue flopping in the wind. PETA, the ASPCA and other animal rights groups say it's dangerous and potentially cruel to let a dog ride in the bed of a truck, but...what have they got against happy dogs? 


Technology Causes Harvest Problems

Oct 12, 2013

Yield monitors, autosteer, cell phones, iPads and all the other gadgets riding with farmers in cabs this harvest are wonderful and in some cases actually improve productivity and profits. But there is a downside that we all recognize but hate to admit.

For example, if we were really honest, how many combines have been plugged, slugged or damaged so far this harvest when the operator was either distracted while talking on his cell phone, or lulled into inattention by autosteer? I am amazed at the number of times when I'm riding in a cab, confirming repairs I made, and seen the operater completely ignore driving the machine while he answered his cell phone, tapped on an iPad, played with the yield monitor or ate lunch. One guy was running a 40-foot soybean platform at 5 miles an hour, and I eventually mentally counted "one-thousand-one, one thousand-two..." and verified he was completely ignoring the combine for up to 35 seconds at a time while he tinkered with an iPad. Had the autosteer system not had an audible warning system that caught his attentiion when we reached the endrows, he would have harvested 20 acres of his neighbor's field before he came back to reality.

We'll never know how many thousands of dollars cell phones and other gadgets cost farmers this fall. Few are willing to admit that TD (technological distraction) was the reason they put an unloading auger into a power pole or ran a football-sized rock into their grain head. Things have certainly changed from the time a farmer once had me remove the aftermarket AM/FM radio from the used combine he bought, because, "I don't want nothing in that cab that will distract me from what I'm doing."


Not So Funny Noises From Combines

Oct 06, 2013

 You're running your combine and hear the following sounds. Can you diagnose the cause?

(a) "bam!" or "pop!" when engaging the separator or unloading system--followed by slow shaft speed warning buzzers going off in the cab.

(b) rapid-fire rattling, the smell of burning rubber--and slow shaft speed warning buzzers going off.

(c) an increasing odor of burning rubber accompanied by a whap-whap-whap sound.

(d) a clang-clang-grinding sound that's only evident when the combine is running "empty" on endrows.

Possible causes for the harvest-halting noises...?

(a) a sudden bang or pop when separator or unloading system is engage, followed by slow shaft speed warning buzzers, is often the result of a shear bolt breaking on an auger or belt drive. Identify why the shear bolt broke before replacing it. If there is no obvious clog, slug, plug or obstruction to cause the shear bolt to break frequently, be suspicious that the holes in the hub or pulley are egged-out with enough freeplay to shear the bolt during normal operation.

(b) the rattle of a slip clutch is familiar warning that some belt, conveyor, auger or other system is overloaded. Determine the cause of the overload. Don't give up till you find the cause. Unless severely worn, slip clutches don't lie.

(c) it's never a good thing to smell burning rubber on a combine because it's usually from an overworked, over-heated drive belt. If the odor is accompanied by a whap-whap-whap sound, it means the belt has begun to delaminate and strands of the belt are flailing against nearby machinery. Ignore the smell and sound long enough, and the sound of a slip clutch rattling will soon be added to the mechanical symphony.

(d) augers with failed bearings make a clanging sound when they hit their housings. They may run silent when full of grain, but get noisy on endrows when the combine empties out. Any unusual noises that appear on endrows or when combines are running empty suggest significant problems that need to be diagnosed.

And finally, here's a noise I heard in a combine cab that only took a few seconds to figure out. I was riding with the operator, and kept hearing a faint voice saying, "Hello?  Hello?" There was a brief silence then a string of faint profanity, as the operator got cussed out for accidentally "butt dialing" his best friend.

Do You Engage at WOT?

Oct 01, 2013

 There are two schools of thought on the proper way to engage a combine's separator and header. Some folks say it doesn't matter if the combine is at wide open throttle (WOT), or at low idle--just put the thottle to full speed and shove the lever ahead or flip the switch: "That's why they put rubber drive belts on them." 

Other combine operators are conscientious about always idling back the engine before engaging the separator and header. Their theory is that gentle is better when it comes to machinery.

Older combines that use a lever to engage the separator are one reason engineers switched to using electric or hydraulic clutches to engage separators. The guys who gently eased the levers ahead risked slipping the belts, building heat into the belts and pulleys, and eventually damaging those drive components. Testing proved it was better to idle the engine back, then slam the lever ahead so the belt(s) engaged as quickly as possible to minimize slippage. 

So the engineers went to electric or hydraulic clutches to engage combine components. The on/off nature of those clutches ensure components engage quickly to minimize belt slippage. Some owner's manuals actually say, or imply, it's permissible to flip the engagement button or switch with the engine at full throttle. And a lot of combine across the country are operated that way, year after year.

So, it's permissible to engage separators and headers at WOT. That doesn't mean it's optimal. I could go through a lot of calculations regarding mass and momentum and the physics of the situation, but the bottom line is that it's easier on components if they're engaged at low engine rpms.


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