Combine tech & pro tips

Ideas for combining in 2021, and what may be coming in future harvest seasons.

By Jackie Clark

Many people might measure fall’s progress by the changing pigments of the leaves. Farmers, however, may track seasons by which header is attached to their combine.

A combine is the anchor of a farm’s field crop equipment lineup, and the machinery industry is constantly working to produce technology that makes them more efficient and easier to operate. This month, Better Farming connected with combine experts and an Ontario producer to discuss automation and efficiency in modern combines, as well as corn and soybean harvest reminders.

“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working with combines, you learn something every year because every year is different and the conditions are constantly changing,” says John Peters, product marketing manager for combines at John Deere, based in Illinois.

Harvest prep

Some of the work that goes into successful combining happens before harvest begins.

Case IH 9250 Combine
    Case IH photo

Late summer is “a good time to get combines out of the shed and start preparing,” Louis Melanson tells Better Farming. He’s a Case IH product specialist in harvest equipment based in Alberta. He often runs into farmers who take their equipment out of storage last-minute and then discover they need repairs or maintenance before they can head to the field.

J Cole Sanford, a cash crop product specialist for New Holland based in central Ohio, agrees.

“Before it’s time to harvest, plug the header in, make sure the height control works and that you don’t have a sensor out of adjustment,” he says. Farmers sometimes forget about things that needed repairs at the end of the previous season.

Some producers, such as Andy Pasztor, may choose to bring their combine to the dealership every winter for a once-over. Pasztor, alongside his brother and father, Mike and Arpad, grows corn, soybeans, rye and vegetables in Norfolk County.

At the dealership “they’re the professionals, they know what they’re doing. We could do it ourselves, but probably nine times out of 10 we’ll miss something, and it’ll lead to downtime,” he explains.

In farming “you never know what the weather is going to be like, so when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.”

Taking the combine to the dealership “costs a little bit more money but in the end, when you don’t have any major breakdowns in the season, it’s pretty nice.”

Once farmers have checked over the combine, they can make a plan to maximize efficiency, Sanford says. This may involve something as simple as working out the math around grain cart usage.

“In corn, I ran the numbers one time and it was actually kind of staggering. Just having a grain cart and not turning off the thresher of the combine, there’s about a 30 per cent improvement in corn harvest,” he explains.

“Creating a harvest plan also involves thinking ahead. Why did you open the land the way you did? Do you have your planter guidance lines?” he adds. “Luckily with the New Holland equipment and using the PLM Connect Portal, you can push that right to the machine.”

Setting the machine

Optimizing harvest involves “taking the time to make sure you’ve got the combine set well to do a good job. Even in different varieties, sometimes you may have to set it differently,” Pasztor says. The process “doesn’t take long, it’s just basically knowing your machine.”

Melanson tells farmers that the easiest way to set a combine is to start right at the front and work your way back. Always start adjusting at the header and work your way through the combine one adjustment at a time.

“If the header doesn’t perform properly, the combine is not going to perform properly either. So they’ve got to inspect their cutter bar for section wear and guard wear,” he explains. “How does the knife actually lay down on the guard itself? If the gap is too wide between the sections and the guard, it means the guard is probably worn out and you need new guards. The best place to look for information is the operator’s manual.”

“When you get to the corn head, you’ve got to look at the stalk rollers and make sure that the front end stalk rollers don’t have too much wear on them, because improper feeding causes both header loss and poor feeding,” he added. Performance at the header “will influence how the threshing is going to behave inside the combine. On the corn head, you don’t want to pull too many leaves inside the combine. It plugs the concave, it plugs the modules, and then the kernels can’t get out, so you end up with too much rotor loss.”

Additionally, “the speed of the draper on the draper header is always critical,” says Melanson. “The speed of the draper is often too fast, so they need to slow down the draper until they can actually see every lug on the draper go by when you’re looking straight forward.”

Peters agrees that mistakes right at the front of the combine can impact the entire harvesting process.

Incorrect “concave setting is probably the biggest mistake that’s out there. It’s the very first thing that you do to the crop, so if you mess that step up, you affect the rest of the system,” he says. “In both corn and soybeans, you want to set your machine as open as possible on a concave setting.”

In corn, the goal is to “get all the grain off the cob without breaking the cob at all. You want long cobs to come out the back of that machine,” he explains. “Then, the cleaning system doesn’t have to work as hard. If you break the cob up, it takes a lot more air velocity to get those broken pieces to blow out the back.”

Operators should monitor combines for wear and tear to keep them running in top condition throughout the season.

“On the feeder chain make sure that the slats are all straight, because a bent slat will wear out the feeder chain faster and eventually cause it to break,” says Melanson. When inspecting the rasp bar inspect the corner of the rasp bar bolt – once the corners of the bolt that holds the rasp bar on is worn, the bar should be replaced.

“A worn-out rasp bar will not pull the crop through the combine at the speed that it needs to, the crop is going to stay in the combine longer and get damaged. Those bars will eventually crack the beans and the corn.”

Inspect your sieve on both the right and left sides, to make sure both sides are adjusted the same. Then calibrate your sieve in order to ensure the in-cab readout is correct. “The wind coming from the cleaning fan takes the path of least resistance,” Melanson adds. “Whichever sieve is closed tighter, the kernels can’t make it through there so they keep riding on top of the sieve and then end up on the ground behind the combine.”

Overall, there are no secret settings on a combine to make it run better, he says. “The secret settings are all in the operator’s manual. So, take the settings that we recommend as a company as a starting point. From there you can start tweaking the combine, but you’re already quite close to the sweet spot you need to reduce crop damage and reduce loss behind the combine.”

Harvest for yield and quality

Once your plan is in place and the combine is set, farmers know to wait for the Number 1 rule.

“The crop has to be fit to harvest,” says Melanson.

Once the crop is fit, Sanford recommends not getting caught up in the beginning of harvest rush. Instead, producers may wish to perform what he calls the 200-foot test.

“The first day of harvest is rather hectic,” he says. Often, farmers “cannot wait to get going and get into the groove of everything.”

Instead, “harvest 200 feet, shut the thresher off, shut the header off, turn the key off and take a breath. Let the machine clean out and just relax for a second. And then get out and look on the ground,” Sanford explains. Check underneath the machine “just to make sure you didn’t forget any shields. And it’s also a good time to check your after-cut losses.”

Operators can get an idea of header vs. base unit losses and how you can correct for that, he adds. “Or an I-forgot-to-put-the-shield-on loss.”

Experts understand that there’s an inverse relationship between grain quality and preventing grain loss.

“As I increase my rotor speed, the damage increases but grain loss decreases. A point exists where you reach maximum crop quality and yield before you can’t increase one without decreasing the other.

“That point on our machines, on an S series combine is somewhere around 400 rpms,” he says. “If I am more concerned about grain quality then I’m going to be on the low side of that, somewhere around 350 to 400. If I’m more concerned about loss, which a lot of people are – as long as you’re not getting docked I’ll go up to say, 450 on the rotor.”

The exact number “depends on your conditions but that’s a good rule of thumb,” Sanford adds.

You can use an assessment of crop damage to gauge the appropriate rotor speed.

In soybeans “we tend to go as high as we can until we crack the kernel, especially at the beginning of harvest, when greener beans that are tougher are present,” Sanford says. In “corn you slow it down until you know that you’re not going to damage the cob or leave kernels unthreshed on the cob.”

Melanson’s adjustment rule of thumb to minimize damage and maximize yield is that “the pre-sieve should never be adjusted below a gap of 3 mm and then should never be adjusted any wider than the size of the kernel That will maintain a cleaner grain sample in the tank and will also reduce cleaning system loss,” he explains. “The more kernels you put in the bin, the more money you put in the bank.”

During the harvest season, Pasztor performs daily checks on his machines to keep them running smoothly.

“You just look for things that might be off, and then every night we blow the machines off with a leaf blower to prevent fires,” he says.

Automation

Newer combines are increasingly automated.

“An operator moves up to the next skill level set with automation,” says Peters. “Not only does it do some of the jobs for them, but it also teaches them.”

When the combine senses a problem like rotor loss and automatically adjusts to correct, the operator can go back into the history and see what adjustments were made, and why.

“It’s a good training tool too,” says Peters.

On John Deere combines, Auto Maintain is “like cruise control in your car,” he adds.

New Holland’s version is called IntelliSense.

“The machine self-sets all the settings minus the concave clearance – that one is still up to the operator,” Sanford explains. “But the rotor speed, the rotor vanes, the pre sieve, top sieve, bottom sieve and the fan are all controlled by the combine, and it’s always trying to make a decision about every 20 to 40 seconds.”

The automated technology “gives you instant feedback with the grain camera” he adds. The moisture sensor continuously takes a snapshot of a cross-section of grain.

When harvesting is complete, “that post-review of the yield maps shows a lot of information to make some decisions for the next year,” Sanford says. “If it was so great in one area, what did I do there to make it good and can I replicate that in other parts of the field. Conversely, a spot that’s not so good, a lower-yielding spot that’s been consistent on a 10-year-average, should we even keep planting it?”

The company also has automated ground drive called IntelliCruise.

New Holland CR 890
    New Holland photo

“Those two things are just incredible for what they’ve done to create operators out of drivers,” Sanford says.

Similarly, Case IH’s Harvest Command “makes an inexperienced operator an expert,” says Melanson. “It starts with initial settings that engineering provide and automatically sets adjustments for the crop you’re harvesting and maintains or adjusts as needed.”

A camera takes a picture to see what the quality of grain looks like, explains Melanson. The machine “will adjust the rotor speed, transport vanes, pre-sieve, top sieve, bottom sieve, ground speed, and the fan position to alleviate cracking and dirty sample. This is all done automatically for the customer – they just sit in the seat and drive the combine.”

The operator “can also activate an auto feed rate with the press of a button, and that will control the ground speed of the combine,” he adds.

Adoption of automation requires some trust-building, Peters says. But, “once operators turn the automation on, they don’t turn it off. At the moment we’re just trying to get more and more people to try the automation and not be afraid of it.”

New technology

From John Deere, “this model year we just introduced the X series. We’ve tweaked it a little bit, but as far as there being some big new bell to talk about, we don’t have that. Stay tuned,” says Peters. New HDR and HDF headers “have wings that fold along with the flex – they absolutely hug the ground so there’s no more worry about going over a terrace.”

John Deere X Series
    John Deere photo

AutoPath is a new technology from the company.

“When you’re planting, you put an implement receiver on the planter, so it knows exactly where you planted each row,” explains Peters. “Now it doesn’t matter what size head you bring into the corn field – it automatically puts your guidance lines down for you. The advantage is there’s no more guess rows.”

New Holland has made improvements to IntelliCruise for model year 22 that will make response times faster, says Sanford.

“On the wide-bodied machines, CR8.90, CR9.90 and CR10.90, we’ll have a standard equipment independent cross-auger shut off inside the grain tank,” he explains. Often “you’re shutting off the grain auger when it’s full – farmers know the system can take it, but they just don’t like to do it.”

The updated shut off “allows the operator to independently control the cross augers in the tank so we can shut those cross augers off, and then the unload auger will empty out even though there’s still grain in the tank,” he says. “So if you’re topping off a truck or topping off a grain cart, or dumping on the go in grain harvest, when you shut off the unload auger it will automatically turn off half of the system to let the other half of the system clean out. You can do it automatically or you can control it manually.”

“We’ve made some improvements to the header where we’ve added some airbags underneath it so that the cutter bar floats a lot nicer, especially when working in soybeans,” he adds. “You can put your header as close to the ground as possible and harvest those pods that are laying really close to the ground.”

Despite updated technology and innovation, many farmers still find harvest success using well-maintained older models.

“Our newest combine will be 11 years old this year,” Pasztor says. “We’re pretty low on the technology side, but the combine does the job. We like to keep it simple, and that way anyone can hop in the combine and run it. I can throw my 70-year-old dad in there and he’ll have no problems with it.”

Once the machine has more hours on it, Pasztor might start thinking about trading it in. However, “sometimes we think less is more when it comes to combine technology,” he says.

Future of combines

In the newest models, “you don’t have to take the time to set the combine up, the new ones all have sensors where it just adjusts itself as you’re going through the field,” Pasztor says. He expects to see that trend continue in the future.

“One of these days you’re going to see a combine that doesn’t need a driver. I think everybody’s headed in that direction but you’ve got to build some trust before you do that,” says Peters.

The jump from automation to autonomy is not one that engineers take lightly.

“When we think about autonomy or moving to autonomous vehicles, we don’t create autonomy for autonomy’s sake,” Chad Passman tells Better Farming. He’s the public and industry relations manager for John Deere’s North American agriculture division.

“We need to do a complete set of jobs from point A to point B. So, the way Deere has focused on autonomy has been automating specific jobs and tasks to open up a producer or a farmer’s ability to focus on more value-added activities,” he explains.

Autonomy may not be too far off.

“I have been here for 45 years and I’m really anxious to see it before I retire,” Melanson says. “It’s not that far away, it’s coming fast.”

Driverless equipment is not the only option for the future of combine technology. With more efficient technology, we may actually see farmers getting smaller combines to do the same amount of work, Sanford says.

“I see efficiency being top of mind,” he explains. “Because of the total capital cost of the machine, they have to make it pay. Our harvest windows are getting smaller and the machines are getting pricier.”

Across Ontario this fall, operators will be combining their skills with expert engineering and automation to get the 2021 crop out of the field. BF

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