Machinery breakdowns are always costly. But they are especially costly during planting and harvest, when getting seed in the ground and grain out of the field in a timely fashion are critical to maximizing yield.
According to Dr. Mark Hanna, Extension ag engineer at Iowa State University, a day of downtime during planting this spring can cost around $1,400, assuming 12-row equipment and an eight-hour day. A day of downtime at harvest might cost around $500. “Both figures depend on the penalty of the weather during the individual season — that is, how much yield is reduced by planting or harvesting on the last day of the season versus the day in which the equipment was down,” Hanna explains.
Luke Gierach, salesman for AC McCartney Equipment in Wataga, IL, answers operating-related questions on more than 200 early-model tractors, combines and related equipment each year. We asked him to name the most common problems he sees on machinery that can lead to breakdowns in the field. Here's his Top 10 list along with tips on how you can prevent these problems from happening in the first place.
Not reading the operator's manual
“I don't know how many times I say, ‘It's in the operator's manual,’” Gierach says. Reading the operator's manual is important, he says, because it tells you how to set the machine and what parts to check before you take it to the field. However, it is one step that many owners fail to do thoroughly.
“For example, the owner's manual will tell them how to calibrate and set seed depth on a corn planter or air pressure if it is an air planter for proper seed placement,” Gierach explains. “Once farmers start planting they might see skips or doubles in the seeds planted. So they call and wait for us to give them an answer when it was right in the operator's manual.”
The operator's manual also describes how to fix certain problems once they happen so that owners can troubleshoot the problem themselves without having to take more time to wait for a technician. However, many farmers may forget to check the troubleshooting section, which can cost them even more time out of the field.
Gierach says it is important to grease a machine properly and on a timely basis. “Sometimes farmers or their employees will miss some grease or lube locations on a new machine because they didn't go through all the lube locations the first time with the owner's manual out,” he explains. “Then, when there's a breakdown due to no lubrication, they say, ‘I thought we got that one.’ So that is part of improper maintenance.”
Other maintenance mistakes are failing to oil chains, check gearboxes regularly, and replace belts when they start to show excessive wear instead of waiting for them to break. “Another big one under proper maintenance is to do a general inspection of the machine at the beginning of the day, like checking engine and transmission levels daily or making sure the wheels are straight and tight on a gravity wagon,” Gierach adds. Taking shortcuts can lead to downtime in the field.
Poor electrical connections
“This is a big cause of breakdowns with today's newer machinery and is a hard one for owners to try to prevent,” Gierach says. “But there are some small things they can do.” For example, you can clean away dust and dirt in areas where connectors are located. When cleaning, use compressed air instead of water to keep moisture away from the wires.
Overrunning machine's capability
Gierach says a lot of farmers run machines to maximum performance or at the top of the engineering curve for which the machine was designed. “They just really run it hard to about where it is ready to snort or puke out,” he says.
He says overrunning the machine puts a strain on all the drives and makes breakdowns much more likely to occur. Gierach says that, to prevent this problem, you should find where a machine's maximum performance level is and then “pull it back a hair” so that you are not running it at maximum constantly.
Not replacing worn parts when needed
Gierach says many times when a part on a machine breaks, farmers replace just the part that broke or failed, but fail to check or replace other parts that may have caused the initial failure. Examples include replacing a drive chain when the sprocket was shot or replacing a belt when maybe the pulley was bad.
By replacing only the broken part, you will temporarily fix the problem but will likely have another breakdown soon because you did not fix all the worn parts.
Gierach admits that many times these additional parts are more expensive to fix. However, he says you will save money by spending a little more on parts up front because it will cut down on the number of breakdowns later on.
Tighteners that are misaligned or at an angle and not tracking straight to the belt or chain in relation to the main drives are another problem. This puts tension on the belt or chain and can cause it to break or wear excessively. Gierach says you need to watch for misalignment and fix it, which may mean replacing worn bushings in the tightener pivot that may be pushing the belt or chain sideways.
This problem applies especially to combines and planters. For example, often a farmer will park the combine in the shed immediately after harvest and leave it there until the following harvest. “The combine will have corn, dirt and chaff built up alongside a lot of the electrical connections, or dust and debris sitting on chains,” Gierach explains. “It is not the best way to be storing them.”
The problem is that debris will attract rodents, which will often nest inside or gnaw at wires. The dust itself can interfere with electrical connections. He suggests cleaning around all electrical connections and other places where debris is built up before storing the machine. Using compressed air is usually the best way to do this.
Improper weather-related use
Sometimes Gierach sees farmers running machines in wet, muddy weather. That can put a strain on the machines, especially combines, because they are not designed for it.
“Running real wet, tough material through the combine could break shafts or plug up the machine,” he explains. “And that puts a strain on everything from feeder house chains to shafts to bearings and pulleys.”
Running tractors in poor weather conditions also can result in problems. “For example, we find mud packed in between dual wheels, which can result in premature wear on the tire sidewalls if you do not clean that out between the wheels before it hardens,” Gierach says.
Ignoring warning signals
“Sometimes operators ignore signals alerting them to such things as low hydraulic pressure or if a shaft isn't turning on a combine,” Gierach says. “The operator may get out of the cab to check if the shaft is turning. And if it is, he will get back in and run the machine without checking it again, assuming the monitor must not be working.” But often there is a problem, he says, and by ignoring it the machine will break down.
Some farmers not only ignore the signals but disconnect them completely to stop the signal from beeping or flashing. This too can result in breakdowns. Signals commonly disconnected include those for engine temperature, hydraulic oil, shaft speeds, or other parts that might not be turning at the correct speed.
Asking untrained personnel to operate equipment
“This is probably one of the biggest ones,” Gierach says. As farms get larger, he says, more farm owners are hiring outside help to operate the equipment without training them. As a result, those who end up driving the machine lack the full understanding of how it works and what it is capable of doing.
“They just know how to make it go,” he says. “And you get breakdowns from that. For example, some of these hired men will shift the tractor into park before it comes to a complete stop. So we'll find a lot of broken or sheared off park pins on tractors that are so equipped.”
Gierach says these 10 problems account for close to 50% of the breakdowns he sees in his dealership. However, all are avoidable if you take these simple precautions. “Sometimes a machine just breaks down without anyone being able to predict it,” Gierach says. “But with a lot of these breakdowns, clearly there are things you can do to try and help yourself out.”
Don't forget preseason checks
Randy Budke, service manager at Carrico Implement in Beloit, KS, says the number-one cause of breakdowns he sees is failure to bring in a tractor, combine or related equipment for a preseason maintenance check at the dealership. “There are a lot of breakdowns that no one can predict,” Budke says. “But if you get a technician to go from front to back of a machine and check it over, that is the best we can do to prevent breakdowns. If you don't do that much, anything can go.”
During the inspection, technicians follow a detailed checklist and visually inspect all parts of the machine. They also run tests, flow-rate hydraulics, pressure-check clutches, check for leaks and hook up laptops to the engine to look for recurring codes that may indicate a problem.
The cost of the inspections varies by the type of machine. Tractor inspections typically run $325, and combine inspections, which can take up to a day and a half, cost around $750. However, Budke says that cost gets absorbed once you agree to make the repairs because the machine has already been taken apart as part of the inspection process, which saves on labor.
Budke says any machine with moving parts should be checked, including planters and balers. “Balers are the number-one machine overlooked,” he says. “The baling season is probably as important as the wheat harvest to some customers.”
The best time for farmers to bring in their machine is in the off-season. “We try to work this through between October and the first of April,” Budke says.