On a hot July afternoon, custom harvester Kevin Neufeld leads a convoy of combines and a 15-person crew across Colorado on I-25. Neufeld and his crew are in their third month of combining wheat. And they have four months left before they call it a season.

Custom cutters like Neufeld spend more time on a combine in one year than the average farmer does in ten. As a result, they can combine better than many farmers. According to an Iowa State survey of central Iowa corn combine operations, custom operators have fewer field losses than owner-operators.

“They know how to get a combine to perform in the ‘sweet spot,’ where the machine is operating at full capacity and maximum efficiency,” says Tim Baker, executive director of U.S. Custom Harvesters, a nonprofit association of custom harvesters.

And they can do the job faster, too. With their large machines, hauling logistics, and fleet of supporting equipment, they can be in and out in a matter of days instead of the month it might take a farmer.

Farm Industry News caught up with six custom harvesters who are among the best in the business. We asked them how corn and soybean farmers who harvest their own crops can do a better or more efficient job.

Kevin Neufeld Inman, KS

Crew: six family members plus 14 employees

Equipment: six John Deere 9660 STS combines

Crops: Corn, milo and wheat

Territory: California, Texas, Colorado, Montana

Neufeld runs six John Deere 9660 STS combines. To get the highest quality grain and maximum bushel from the field, he follows the settings recommended in the operator's manual to start. Then he makes adjustments based on the amount of cracks and foreign material in the grain sample. “Don't just set the combine like the book says and then think that's the best you're going to get,” he says.Neufeld checks the grain sample every truckload. He also checks for grain loss on the ground several times a day or every time he starts a new field. “Cut in a ways, get behind the machine and look on the ground,” he explains. “If you start pitching a lot out the back, you'll suffer a big loss, especially in something as high yielding as corn.” For example, with an eight-row corn head, eight kernels in a square foot equals 1 bu./acre loss. What's more, grain left on the ground can lead to a big volunteer crop that can be expensive to control.

Neufeld says the key to correcting a problem is to make one adjustment at a time. “For example, if the combine is throwing excessive grain out the back, first slow the ground speed,” he explains. “If running too fast, the combine will try to send too much crop through the machine.” If a slower speed brings no improvement, return to your old speed and slow the cleaning fan. If that doesn't help, speed the fan back up and open the chaffer or sieve to allow more grain to fall through. Also check your threshing elements, which may be over-chewing the cob and causing loss. If there is excessive foreign material, such as chewed up corn cobs or trash, in the grain sample or bin, open the concave, which may be over-threshing the corn. Next slow the speed of the rotor or cylinder.

Don't assume grain loss is coming from the back of the combine, Neufeld adds. If conditions are dry, the loss could be coming from the header due to shattering on entry.

Even though Neufeld harvests thousands of acres a year, he doesn't buy the largest combine available. Instead he buys the size that matches the supporting equipment that is available. “If your combine can cut 20% more corn a day, it is not going to do you any good if you don't have enough trucks to keep it going,” he says.

As a result, he says before you spend money on the biggest machine, make sure you have enough supporting equipment to maximize its use. “Your combine should not be the bottleneck of your operation,” he says. “It is better to have an empty truck sitting in the field than a full combine waiting to be unloaded.”

Brent Lee Johnson Johnson Harvesting Evansville, MN

Crew: 13

Equipment: eight 2388 Case IH combines

Crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers

Territory: Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana

Brent Lee Johnson harvests crops across the High Plains with eight 2388 Case IH combines. We reached him in his crew-cab Ford pickup while he was moving machines from Colorado to South Dakota.

Johnson says the biggest mistake farmers make is not getting their equipment set up right. “Farmers have a tendency to over-modify their combines,” he says. “There are so many products available and different ways to set up a machine. And some of the aftermarket equipment doesn't match the opportunities available on newer machines engineered by companies.” One example is the wrong combination of aftermarket sieves and concaves. You should check with your combine technician at your local dealer to find out what combinations work.

The next biggest mistake Johnson sees is the failure to organize grain carts and trucks efficiently. “Simple things like pointing the truck out of the field rather than having to turn a full truck in the field,” he says. “We do it as second nature because of the months and years of doing it.”

Johnson says you should always face your trucks away from the field to save time and wear and tear on the trucks and to give the grain cart easier access to them. You also should park trucks in a row and load the first truck first so you always know which way to go and never have to back up.

“We always station everything in the field so you don't have to back up and risk damage from unnecessary backing,” he says.

Finally, he advises, to save cart time, you should unload the combine in the grain carts as you are headed toward the truck.

A tip related to efficiency is safety. “The two work well together,” he says. Safety in his business means getting the word “hurry” out of everyone's vocabulary, he says. “I've never seen a crop that didn't get taken off the field. But I've sure seen cases where we had to bury someone when there was still a crop in the field.”

Johnson recommends that you do not set the pace of harvest at a frantic level. Farmers who enlist the help of family members or people in town should pace their workers according to their abilities so that they don't feel rushed and make mistakes. “For example, make sure you walk through the details of how to get the truck out of the field or how to unload it at the elevator or at the bin site,” he explains. “And just calm down.”

Johnson says if you keep a calm and positive attitude, you will get more work out of your people in a much safer environment.

Lawrence Dees Dees Seed Company Blountstown, FL

Crew: six

Equipment: three Massey Ferguson 9690 combines

Crops: corn, soybeans, oats, wheat, millet, clover, grass seed and rye

Territory: 11,500 acres in Georgia, Alabama and Florida

Lawrence Dees' accent is thicker than Alabama swamp grass. He custom harvests everything from corn to bahai grass seed as far south as Florida. We reached him at 6:30 a.m over a breakfast of grits to get his tips for corn and soybean farmers.

“Just be conscientious in your work is the only thing I could tell you,” he says. “If you don't, you'll waste a man's crop.”

Conscientiousness to Dees means walking the field behind every machine each time it starts to make sure crop isn't being lost. “We'll lose some, which is intolerance,” he says. “But we try not to lose as much as our competitors lose.”

He attributes his edge to two things: his Massey Ferguson 9690 combines and the few adjustments he makes to them. He says the Massey's rotary design lets him harvest a better-quality sample with less crop loss than with competitive combines.

“I wouldn't run anything else,” he says. “It is a whole lot simpler to operate. And with the helical vane feeder beater, high-profile chrome rasp bars, rotator knives, and constant speed rotor control, the machines will do a better job.”

He admits one exception is in wheat straw early in the season, where he says the John Deere conventional cylinder-type machine does a better job of producing straw that is to be baled.

Two adjustments Dees makes to his Masseys are to rotor speed and airflow. He follows the settings recommended in the operator's manual and then adjusts according to the crop and amount of foreign material in the sample.

“For example, in corn the book calls for an airflow of 1,100 or 1,200 rpm and a rotor speed of 500 to 600 rpm,” he explains. “If the cob is breaking up, then your rotor speed is too fast. If it is not shelling it all off, then your rotor speed is too slow.”

He says the amount of moisture in corn will dictate your final setting. For example, in high-moisture corn, airflow will remain the same but rotor speed may have to be increased. “So if you were running at 550, you may have to increase it to 625,” he says.

He uses similar setting in soybeans. He says airflow is basically wide open. Rotor speed is around 500 rpm and adjusted to the amount of cracks in the sample. “If you're seeing cracks or splits, go slower,” he says.

Rick Farris Farris Brothers Edson, KS

Crew: three family members plus six employees

Equipment: four 2388 Case IH combines

Crops: Small grains, corn, soybeans, sunflowers and pinto beans

Territory: 27,000 acres in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri

Rick Farris, former president of U.S. Custom Harvesters, says his best advice is to make sure you have the right sieves and concaves for the crop you are harvesting. “In other words, use wheat concaves in wheat and wider tooth sieves in soybeans,” he says. “A lot of guys will say, ‘Well, I can get by with my wheat concaves in soybeans,’” Farris says. “But you won't do as good a job.”

He also advises farmers to adjust their equipment each time they switch crops or run into different field conditions to get the most grain with minimal damage from the combine. Here are six adjustments Farris makes to his 2388 Case IH combines each time he changes fields:

Front transport veins

When harvesting food-grade corn or corn that is hard to get off the cob, Farris stands up the combine's front transport veins to retard the flow of material. This allows the crop to make an extra pass over the concave to shell the remaining kernels so the operator doesn't have to increase the rpm of the combine, which can damage the grain.

Concave clearance

Farris adjusts the clearance between the concave and rotor bars to match the width of the average cob in the field. “If you go too wide with your concave, you can increase mechanical damage,” he explains.

On green-stem soybeans that are hard to get off the stem, he runs a close concave clearance to keep the stems from feeding too smoothly through the rotor and losing traction.

Sieves

When Farris gets into high-moisture corn above 30%, he removes the bottom sieve and lets the top sieve do all the cleaning. He says this prevents overloading the return and causing mechanical damage.

Front drum

The front drum should be at the height indicated in your operator's manual for the crop you are harvesting. “As a general rule, you want it all the way up in corn, in the middle for soybeans and most other crops, and in the lower position for malt barley,” he says. “Some farmers will just leave it in the middle position. But in corn, that can slow the feeding rate from the header into the feeder house and slow your ground speed, which cuts efficiency.”

Rock trap

Farris says on combines with a rock trap, you may need to change the position of the paddles on the beater in the trap. “They are adjustable in and out,” he explains. “We have them all the way out in small grains. But when you get into corn, you want them in to get a smoother flow of material through the rock trap.”

Gearbox

Finally, with eight-row corn heads, which have a two-speed gearbox, make sure you are at the same speed on the left as you are on the right. “If the head seems like it doesn't feed right on one side, that's what it is,” Farris says. In corn for feed, he normally runs the gearbox on the highest speed. “That allows us to go at a higher ground speed,” he explains. “In food-grade corn we run it on low.”

Lance Frederick Frederick Harvesting and Trucking Alden, KS

Crew: 18 employees

Equipment: seven John Deere 9660 STS combines, 10 trucks, tractors, grain carts

Crops: corn, soybeans, sorghum, sunflowers, field peas, small grains

Territory: 60,000 acres in eight Midwest states

Good harvesting requires close attention to your combine header, according to Lance Frederick of Alden, KS. “Too many people don't pay enough attention to the front end of the combine,” he says. “If you don't start right up front, then you're wrong all the way. And nothing is going to be right until it is changed.”

Two critical adjustments up front are deck plate spacing and header speed. He says deck plate spacing is especially important these days due to the new higher-yielding corn hybrids that have less kernel retention to the cob than the older ones do. “If you take an ear of corn ready to harvest and bang it on the header, the kernels will pop off easier than they used to, even corn five years ago,” he says.

Frederick says to follow the settings recommended in your owner's manual to start and then fine-tune them to the size and conditions of the crop.

“The spacing should allow the ear and stalk to get through the header, be pulled down by the snap rollers and snapped off into the combine without damage to the kernels,” he explains. If spaced too narrow, the deck plate will create a dam, and the corn will not pass through. If the plates are too wide, the ear will get partially through the deck plate and the snapping rolls will shatter the grain before it can get into the combine.

Frederick has hydraulic deck plate corn heads, which cost more than manual heads that you have to get out and adjust. But he justifies the cost because he gets less crop loss and better quality. “A manual header can take an hour and a half to adjust,” he says, “whereas I can do it in two seconds from the cab with a hydraulic button. So I am adjusting my deck plates way more than the guy who has the older-style head.”

After you set the deck plates, you need to coordinate header and ground speed, he says. Deck plate spacing and header and ground speed work together to determine how fast the plant is pulled down against the header. Check with your manufacturer for suggested speed ratios.

Finally, Frederick recommends farmers buy poly heads to save on grain. “Plastic is more of a dull thump than it is when it hits a piece of metal,” he says. “So it has more of a cushion for the ear and results in less grain loss.”

Don Wilken D&C Wilken Farms Loda, IL

Equipment: two New Holland TR99 and CR940 combines

Crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, malt barley

Territory: 7,000 acres in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Illinois

Custom harvester Don Wilken says that because the new larger-capacity combines can harvest anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 bu./hr., one of the essential pieces of equipment today is a high-capacity grain cart. “If you run a combine eight hours a day and 25% of the time it is sitting on the end unloading, it is not a very efficient use of resources,” he says.

Wilken owns two J&M 875 grain carts. He says they increase the capacity of his New Holland combines about 25% because he doesn't have to stop and unload the combine grain tanks. “Instead of stopping and unloading the combine in a truck or at the end of a row, we run the grain cart in the field along with the combine,” he says. “The grain cart then goes to the truck, and the combine never stops.”

Wilken says it is becoming more common to haul harvested grain directly from the field to the elevator rather than storing and drying it in bins. “Compared to the last five years, more farmers own semis,” he says. “And the corn hybrids being developed dry down fast in the fall in the field. So more farmers are hauling grain directly to the elevator, which I think is more efficient.”

Finally, because of the high cost of new combines, Wilken advises that a farmer buy a combine with another farmer to spread the cost of ownership over more acres and lower each person's annual machinery cost. “We figure our annual cost for our combine is about half of what it would be if we just combined our own corn and beans,” he says.

Combine kits upgrade performance

If you want the features custom harvesters have on their combines but can't afford to buy a new fully equipped machine, a combine kit may be an option. Sold by most major combine manufacturers, combine kits let you upgrade everything from cleaning fans to rasp bars to feeder chains. Each kit is numbered, and all the parts and instructions come in a shrink-wrapped package.

“You can take a 10- or 15-year-old 1400 or 1600 series machine and add in kits that will upgrade it to a current model year combine,” says Leo Bose, CNH product marketing and training manager for harvesting products.

Two kits that are big sellers for Case IH this year are the new AFX rotor kit and the cross-flow cleaning fan kit. The AFX rotor kit includes a complete AFX rotor, Case IH's newest rotor and all the rasp bars.

The cross-flow cleaning fan kit fits 1400 and 1600 series combines. It provides uniform distribution or positive air to the entire cleaning system for a cleaner grain sample, quieter fan operation and reduced horsepower requirements.

Prices of kits start around $100 and go up from there. For more information, contact your local combine dealer.

Get custom equipped

Pop quiz. How do combines used by custom harvesters differ from combines used by farmers? Answer: They don't. The difference is in how they are equipped.

Because they can spread their equipment costs over more acres than the average owner-operator, custom harvesters can afford to get the latest high-tech features and options.

According Leo Bose, Case IH product marketing and training manager for harvesting products, custom harvesters commonly use these three features to increase their grain savings:

Hydraulically adjustable stripper plates

These allow you to hydraulically open or close the stripper plates from the cab. “For example, as stalk diameters change as you move to high- or low-lying areas in the cornfield, you can adjust the opening on the go to maximize overall grain savings while reducing butt shelling,” Bose says.

Remote sieve adjustments

This feature allows you to adjust the sieves from outside the combine rather than going inside the cleaning system.

Fine-cut option in straw chopper

This option allows you to finely cut heavier-stemmed crops to provide an even distribution of material over the entire width of the header. “Residue management is a hot topic because of no-till and trying to prepare the seedbed for the next year,” Bose says. “This option lets you start seedbed preparation at the back of the combine when you are harvesting in the fall.”