NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect new cost and maintenance information.
Machinery breakdowns are always costly, and they are especially so 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.
Just one eight-hour day of downtime can cost growers $2,400 at planting and $900 at harvest assuming the use of 12-row equipment, according to Dr. Mark Hanna, retired Iowa State University Extension Ag Engineer, (Note: Those figures have close to doubled since this story was first reported in 2003.)
"Actual cost depends on how much yield is affected by doing the operation later in the season versus the day that equipment was 'down'," Hanna says.
Eric Bates, salesperson for AC McCartney Equipment in Wataga, Ill., 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.
1. Not reading the operator's manual.
"Some farmers have never even opened the owner’s manual," Bates says. "Most of what they need to know is in there."
Owner’s manuals cover everything from maintenance checklists to calibration instructions. Most issues are addressed in the troubleshooting section so farmers can fix the problems themselves without having to wait for a technician.
2. Improper maintenance.
Skipping daily maintenance is another mistake that can cause downtime. Bates says it is important to grease all lube points daily and check engine oil and fluids such as transmission fluid and urea or diesel exhaust fluid."
"With the new Tier 4 engines, we run into issues with people who use a cheaper urea or diesel exhaust fluid, and that can cause problems with the exhaust and aftertreatment systems," Bates says.
Farmers also should regularly replace fuel filters and check chains, gearboxes and belts for wear and replace when wear is excessive. On gravity wagons, wheels should be checked for tightness and alignment before going to the field.
3. Poor electrical connections.
This problem is hard to prevent and is becoming more commonplace as more machinery is electronically controlled, Bates says. However, cleaning away dust and dirt around the connectors can help. When cleaning, use compressed air instead of water to keep moisture away from the wires.
4. Overrunning machines.
Constantly pushing machines to run at maximum performance or at the top of the engineering curve can strain joints and cause equipment to die prematurely. "We have some operators out there that push the machines too hard for too long and try and force them to do things they weren’t designed for," Bates says. He advises farmers to run machines just under their intended maximum performance level at most times to avoid undue stress and prevent premature wear.
5. Not replacing worn parts.
When a part on a machine breaks, some customers will replace only that part and not 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 the pulley was bad.
Replacing only the parts that are broken is a temporary fix that can cost money in downtime.
"When customers don’t replace all the things we recommend need replacing, nine times out of 10 they will come back with bigger problems we’ll end up having to fix," Bates says.
6. Misaligned tighteners.
Tighteners that are not tracking straight with the belt or chain in relation to the main drives can put tension on the belt or chain, causing it to break or wear excessively. It’s important to replace worn bushings in the tightener pivot that may be pushing the belt or chain sideways.
"On combines, for example, you want to make sure that belts are running straight and that chains and belts are at the proper tension so that they don’t slip or break," Bates says. "Also make sure that the shafts are running at the right speed."
7. Improper storage.
Combines and planters can build up dust and debris, which attract rodents. Rodents gnaw on wires and the dust itself can interfere with electrical connections.
"You’ll see periods where mice and rats get into machinery," Bates says. "It’s not rodent proof.
Once they eat up the debris they will chew on wires and seals, and you’ll end up spending money on electrical harnesses and that sort of thing."
Bates recommends storing machinery inside and cleaning around all electrical connections and other areas of buildup before parking it inside. Compressed air is better and safer than water for cleanup.
8. Weather-related issues.
Operating in wet, muddy conditions can put strain on equipment, Bates says. For example, running wet, tough material through a combine can break shafts or plug up the machine, which then puts strain on everything from feeder house chains to shafts to bearings and pulleys. In tractors, mud packed in between dual wheels can result in premature wear on the tire sidewalls once the mud hardens.
While it’s difficult to avoid these conditions, understanding the weather-related issues can alert you to problems to look for.
9. Ignoring warning signals.
Warning lights on screens are there for a reason, often signaling issues that need to be addressed, such as low hydraulic pressure, high engine temperature or a shaft that isn’t turning. However, too often those signals are ignored, resulting in machinery failure.
"That’s exactly right," Bates says, "especially when it’s a hired hand who’s told to get the work done. Sometimes you can make it another an hour, and sometimes you can’t."
The bottom line is get it checked.
10. Untrained operators.
As farms get larger, farm owners are having to hire outside help that may not be trained to operate machinery. Lack of training can result in abused machinery and costly breakdowns.
"We see that fairly often," Bates says. Time invested in training can make your machinery last longer.
Bates says these 10 problems account for close to 50% of the breakdowns he sees at the dealership. However, taking some simple precautions can go a long way in preventing these issues.
"Times are tougher financially than what they were five years ago, and farmers are not updating equipment as often," Bates says. "So, it is extremely important to pay special attention to regular maintenance and preseason checks to make sure their equipment makes it through the season."