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Mastering the art of combine maintenance

Picture this. You just started combining your first field of the year, and everything is going smoothly. Then an alarm signal goes off in your combine. After inspecting the machine, you realize you don’t have enough expertise to fix the problem yourself and must call your combine dealer. Waiting impatiently for the service person, you decide that you need to enhance your combine repair skills.

After logging nearly 2,400 hrs. a year on their three combines, father and son custom harvesters Jim and Adam Squires have become experts on combine maintenance. To enhance their expertise and save money, they also overhaul their combines in the winter to ensure they will run well for the next six-month harvest season.

We caught up with Jim and Adam on their harvest run in North Dakota to ask them for a few tips on how to keep combines in tip-top shape.

Regular routine. The Squireses conduct a regular combine maintenance routine. They have found that servicing in the morning works best because they have a clear look at the machines and can find potential problems, such as bearings that are out or cracks in critical parts. Some people might suggest servicing at night while the combines are warm, but then it is harder to see potential problems. Jim says that that, if you service at night, make sure you have plenty of lights shining on the combine so that you can see its parts in detail.

Service regimen. Jim and Adam say the most important steps in maintenance are greasing all the zerks, checking the air filters for cleanliness and adjusting the chains for tightness.

Every morning, they grease all 10- and 25-hr. zerks. They also fill the machines with fuel, check both engine and hydraulic oil levels, and check the radiators to see if they are full of water. When combining soybeans, they also empty the rock traps every day. Every two days they check the air filters for cleanliness, grease 50-hr. zerks and check chain tensions, especially the feeder house chains.

Duties that need to be performed only a once a week include checking air pressure in the tires and emptying the rock traps when combining crops other than soybeans.

Jim and Adam are always on the lookout for signs of possible problems, such as bearings that are completely out and cracks in the shoes, shaker pans or walkers. "Checking walkers is important because they are not built heavy enough for as much as they shake," Adam says. Other parts that tend to wear out over time include bearings, chains, belts, sprockets, sickle sections and injector lines. But wear on these parts can easily be caught by visual inspection. And don’t forget about the headers, the Squireses warn, because the combine can’t do anything if you can’t get the crop into it.

Everything but the kitchen sink. The bad news is "there are some things that you can’t catch, like if a bearing is about to go out, you can’t see that necessarily," Adam says. So it helps to be prepared in the field to minimize downtime. The Squires have a service truck in which they carry all their tools and spare parts.

Jim always makes sure he has a grease gun in the field. He also needs a wrench set and a socket set. Adam says that he uses the generator/welder a lot to fix breakdowns or patch problems. He also believes an air compressor is essential because it allows them to use air tools whenever possible to reduce downtime. Smaller tools that he wouldn’t go to the field without are a crescent wrench and a good set of metric wrenches.

Just as important as tools for the job are spare parts. Parts that are always in their service truck are a full set of belts for the combine; a belt-tightener pulley; connector links, half links and chains; sickle sections and guards for the cutterbar; drive chains for the heads; and fingers for the header auger. Engine and hydraulic oil, assorted bearings, bolts and nuts, and an ample supply of welding rod are also essential.

Other important, although less obvious, tools that are always in the service truck are the combine manual, which explains how to take parts off, fix them and put them back together, and a parts catalog with the parts and their corresponding numbers.

Stocking up on parts is just one of the steps in the Squireses’ winter combine maintenance routine.

Winter maintenance. "The key to having a successful harvest season begins with wintertime maintenance in the shop," Adam says. "We go through our combines ourselves because it’s cost-efficient. It’s much cheaper than having your dealer go through it because you save money on labor. Plus, we can afford to spend more time per combine because the dealers have more combines to go over during the winter and they may rush through them."

Jim and Adam figure they can save between $8,000 and $10,000 per machine by inspecting it themselves. On a typical combine they might spend between $2,500 and $5,000 for parts, whereas the dealer might charge between $10,000 and $15,000 for parts and labor.

To begin the two- to three-week process, Jim and Adam first clean the combines with a power wash and wax. Next, Jim says, they "try to check for key things by running the machine for an hour in the shop, feel for bearings to see if they feel warm, and look for cracks in belts. Then we climb inside and take a look at everything." If they aren’t completely sure how something goes together or if something seems to be missing, they call their service manager at their dealer.

Jim says wintertime maintenance shouldn’t take place only in the shop. "Go to all the combine clinics you can," he recommends. There you can learn handy hints, diagnostics and common problems to look for and how to fix them. Combine clinics are often held at local dealers during the winter or shortly before the harvest season.

After 21 years in the custom harvesting business and countless hours spent both inside and outside the combine, routine maintenance and repairs have become a part of the job for Jim Squires — skills he’s passing on to his son. In the end, he says, if all else fails, call your service manager.

Winter maintenance checklist
If you have decided to perform your own combine inspection this winter, start with this partial checklist covering the major parts of a combine. You can also check with your service manager for a complete checklist.

  • Wash and wax.

  • Check all lights.

  • Tighten all belts as needed.

  • Look for cracks in the belts.

  • Check all chains for tightness and wear.

  • Check feeder house chains.

  • Check elevator chains.

  • Replace all chains every other year.

  • Check all bearings for signs of fatigue.

  • Fix any problems from harvest.

  • Check the feeder house floor for wear. It may need to be replaced or rebuilt.

  • Check the concave for excess wear.

  • Inspect the cylinder bars for straightness and wear.

  • Check the conveyor auger bearings for wear and dryness.

  • Check fountain and unloading augers for wear.

  • Look inside walkers.

  • Check walkers and walker bearings for cracks and general wear, or check the rotors. Look for excess wear and check the alignment and bearings.

  • Check the total condition of the straw chopper (hammers, knives, shell, rotor). Is the chopper properly balanced or does it shake excessively?

  • Weld any and all cracks.

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