Harvest More Than Grain
Pre-harvest planning and maintenance help make the most of your combine pass.
By Annette Bertelsen | Photos By Jason Jenkins and AGCO Corp.
Before the adrenaline rush of harvest kicks in, plan ahead to capitalize on the full capabilities of today’s combines. Here are tips to preserve not only grain quality and yield, but also soil integrity and the wealth of data you can gather along with the grain.
Start Early For Good Data
Several months before harvest, make sure everything is good to go from a yield-monitor standpoint, recommends Kent Shannon, Extension ag engineer, University of Missouri. “The last thing you want is an error message popping up when it’s time for combines to start rolling. How the display interacts with sensors or how information is saved may be different from last season,” he says. “Check to see if any procedures have changed, and confirm that your display firmware is up to date. At the same time, visually check the mass-flow and moisture sensors.”
Once in the field, double-check sensors. “Test a grain sample with a moisture meter, and compare results,” says Shannon. “Don’t forget that speed is a critical part of calculating yields,” while also calibrating the mass-flow sensor and managing other settings that enable the combine yield-monitoring system to run at top performance.
Have a plan in place to clean up harvest data after combining. “Total bushels are generally within 2 to 3% of what was actually harvested, but spatial data still has inherent errors,” Shannon says. “The software has some default values built in, but errors can happen when you enter a field or change speed, or simply due to combine dynamics. Work with your consultant or ag service provider to remove the errors so that precise prescriptions can be created.”
Make Data Analysis A Priority
“You can now wirelessly transfer data to your agronomist from your combine. Memory cards aren’t completely a thing of the past, but progressive farmers are doing more data management in the cloud in order to make management decisions faster,” says Shannon.
Swift relay and analysis helps with fall fertilizer prescriptions and enables growers to take advantage of early-order hybrid discounts. It also helps on-farm research programs deliver actionable results. “In our Missouri Strip Trial Program, we can almost instantly determine where one treatment outyielded another,” Shannon says. “Knowing if something worked—or didn’t work—locally is key to making big improvements from one year to the next.”
Optimize Combine Settings
The next step in preparing for harvest is doing all you can to optimize combine setup and performance, so as much clean, high-quality grain as possible makes it from the field to the bin.
When an Iowa study compared grain losses from various combines several years ago, “The make and model with the lowest loss was the same make and model with the highest loss. The difference was the operator,” says Mark Hanna, agricultural engineer, Urbandale, Iowa.
While the latest combines have been developed with more advanced technology to help ensure better grain quality and capture, Hanna says, “It still comes down to a team of operator plus machine. Farmers need to take pre-harvest steps, monitor results and make adjustments.”
Begin with the front of the combine, says Hanna. Before soybean harvest, make sure sickle knives are sharp, in good register and in close tolerance to the guards. Prior to corn harvest, check your row-unit gathering chain lugs and stalk rolls to be sure they are in good condition.
Limit Grain Loss
Sensors typically monitor grain loss at the back of the combine, which is fine for small grains, but can lead to a false sense of security when harvesting corn and soybeans. That’s because losses at the gathering head are common, accounting for up to 90% of soybean and up to 60% of corn grain loss.
When harvesting soybeans, begin by checking the position and speed of the grain platform reel to limit grain loss, Hanna says. “Generally, the reel should move about 25% faster than your travel speed (i.e., a 1.25 reel index), unless the crop is severely lodged, in which case you want the reel moving at least 50% faster.”
Caleb Schleder, tactical marketing manager for combines at AGCO,® says, “While newer sensor technology is being developed to better identify where losses originate, doing actual counts on the ground will allow you to quantify what the loss monitors are displaying, providing a good guide for adjustment.”
Schleder says to be aware that there are four zones of loss, and only three of them come from the combine. “Look before you harvest to assess pre-harvest loss on the ground,” he says, “and subtract that from what you count in the other three zones for header loss, leaks under the machine and behind-combine loss. Each zone has different potential causes.”
As a rule of thumb, Hanna says, “One bushel or less per acre is a reasonable goal for harvest loss. You’re looking for fewer than 40 soybeans or 20 kernels of corn in a 10-square-foot area. If a whole ear of corn bounces out in a 435-square-foot area [1/100 acre], that equates to losing 1 bushel per acre.”
Be Gentle On Grain
Grain quality is impacted by the condition of the crop at harvest and by the combine settings. The challenge is how to still get the best grain quality, even if dry conditions make the grain vulnerable to cracks and splits.
Randomly inspect the grain coat of harvested soybeans as you combine. If you are seeing a lot of splits, Schleder says, you need to troubleshoot to see where in the machine the damage is happening. “You have to find the right settings to where you’re still capturing that grain, but you’re not being as aggressive while threshing and separating it.”
Settings that affect soybean grain quality include rotor and concave settings, sieve openings in the cleaning shoe and loading levels of the combine and clean-grain elevator.
Proper combine settings also can help avoid shelling off kernels by stalk rolls when harvesting corn. “A setting of 1¼ inches between the two deck plates is a good starting point,” Hanna says. “But ear sizes aren’t the same from year to year and from field to field, so don’t just ‘set it and forget it.’”
Preserve Valuable Field Resources
Harvest preparation for maximum return on investment should include taking steps to protect soil health and manage crop residue while combining. Barry Fisher, soil health specialist with the NRCS in Indiana, says to start by spreading out equipment weight. “For combines, tracks are preferable, followed by flotation tires. At the minimum, use duals with radials. If carrying over 1,000 bushels, look for a tracked grain cart.”
Secondly, plan traffic patterns. Research shows 90% or more of compaction impact occurs in the first pass. “Top-shelf practice is true controlled-traffic lanes. Your grain cart and tractor should run in the same tracks that your combine just made,” says Fisher. “Arrange your harvest pattern so the grain cart is traveling back to the grain truck as you are filling the cart. That way, far less of the field is being compacted by the cart.”
In addition, he says, “Grain trucks carry very high pounds per square inch [psi], so keep them off the field if at all possible. It takes some planning, but it’s well worth it.” Over time, using a combination of no-till and cover crops can help build higher soil stability to minimize compaction, Fisher says.
Manage Crop Residue
Proper handling of crop residue can reduce soil erosion, preserve nutrients and water, and give you a head start on spring seedbed preparation. “At a minimum, have a corn header that puts a significant break in the stalk so microbes can enter and start decomposition,” says Fisher, who advises matching corn head configuration to fit soils, crop rotation practices and tillage system.
“In west-central Indiana, where we are doing no-till in highly erodible soils, we choose a head that puts a break every 2 to 3 inches [to start the breakdown process], but that keeps the stalk intact to protect against winter soil erosion. In contrast, in a continuous corn scenario in flatter, wetter soil conditions where some tillage is planned, you’d want to use a chopping head to shred the stalks into smaller pieces that get incorporated and break down quicker.”
Soybean residue can contain the equivalent of 50 pounds of potash per acre, making even distribution critical. As the widths of grain platforms and heads increase, it becomes important to spread residue evenly across the full platform. Modern combines are offering new ways to manage residue, such as active tailboards to manage the direction of residue spread while compensating for wind.
“Make sure your combine is equipped with such options that optimize residue spreading, especially in strip-till or no-till situations. That sets the stage for residue and soil to warm up quickly and evenly in spring,” says Fisher.
Then, properly adjust combine settings for good distribution, no matter the crop. “Every year the amount of residue will be different. Look at your manual to adjust your settings. Most equipment dealerships hold workshops that can be very helpful, too. Another way to protect corn, soybean or wheat residue from being blown or washed away is to have a growing cover crop.
“Precision ag helps us monitor the benefits of cover crops in terms of yield, nutrient management and pest control, and that’s leading to more adoption. In fact, it’s one of the most rapidly growing practices in agriculture today,” says Fisher. “Why not capture free sunlight energy and transfer it to provide a major benefit to your soil health and function?”