Tips For Off-Season Farm Equipment Maintenance
When it’s time to roll, will your equipment be up to the task? AGCO experts offer tips for off-season overhauls.
By Jason Jenkins
You hustled all through harvest. You endured the long days, the weather delays, the meals eaten from the seat of the combine. And yet you still found time for what’s important: family, friends and faith. Now that the crop is in, you’ve earned a little downtime.
However, spring is just around the corner.
The non-growing season may move at a slightly slower pace, but preparing to plant the next crop begins while the north wind still bites and snow still blankets the fields. Among the tasks is pre-season maintenance on tractors, planters and tillage equipment. Taking time to ensure that each implement is in ideal working condition before “spring rush” hits breakneck speed is one step toward a successful season.
As the proverbial workhorses on the farm, tractors literally pull producers through planting season. But when machines sit for months between harvest and planting, it’s critical that they’re put through their paces before any seed is sown.
“The first law of physics is that that an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Tractors are kind of the same,” says Andrew Sunderman, AGCO tactical marketing manager for high-horsepower tractors. “After a tractor has been sitting through the wintertime, it’s important that we check all the critical moving components and make sure they’re oiled properly and greased properly.”
Sunderman says the first step in an off-season maintenance program is ensuring that all tractors are up to date on their service intervals. Such service should be based on each machine’s engine hours.
“With our Fendt tractors, all the standard service intervals are covered by the Fendt Gold Star Program for the first three years or 3,000 hours,” he explains. “Through the AGCO Parts Division, customers can enroll in PM360, which is a preventative maintenance program designed to catch problems before they become breakdowns. With these programs, we’re trying to make sure that when those prime operating windows open, a customer is running and not fixing something that could have been taken care of beforehand.”
Programs such as Fendt Gold Star and PM360 allow customers to take advantage of the expertise found at their local AGCO dealership, Sunderman adds.
“They’re skilled at what to check and at recognizing something that has an excessive amount of wear,” he says. “I might look at a belt, for instance, and not notice anything wrong, but they can tell by discoloration or by the way it’s tensioned. That’s the value of relying on the dealership.”
Beyond regular service, Sunderman says it’s important to follow daily maintenance checkpoints as covered in the operator’s manual. This includes items such as topping up oil and other fluids, making sure joints are adequately lubricated and bolts are properly torqued, inflating tires to the optimal pressure, ensuring that radiators and air intakes are clear of debris and that filters are cleaned or replaced.
“Ballasting is also important,” he continues. “You want the proper ballasting for different tasks, whether that’s tillage or planting. That’s something that can be taken care of ahead of time so you’re not rushing at the last minute.”
Training for tractor operators is another key to off-season preparation. Whether the tractor is new, the operator is new or both, it’s important that operators are comfortable and can efficiently run the tractor and all connected implements. Practice during the winter can help avoid any issues in the spring.
“This also gives you a chance to make sure that your equipment is set up properly in terms of their calibrations and working in parallel with the tractor,” Sunderman says.
Tractors aren’t the only equipment that can benefit from pre-season inspection. Just as critical is ensuring that your planter is operating at peak efficiency, and the best place to start is the frame, says Larry Kuster, AGCO senior marketing specialist for seed and tillage.
“Check for cracked, bent or bowed frame components,” he suggests. “Look for visible cracks in welds, folding points and other points under stress on the toolbar.”
Row unit frames should be square to the frame and not rotated left or right from true vertical. If a frame isn’t square, it’s likely the parallel linkage arms are bent. Kuster suggests checking for side to side movement as well.
“Any movement shouldn’t exceed a half-inch left or right, 1 inch total,” he says. “If so, the bushings and/or parallel arms may need to be replaced.”
The hydraulic system, including lift and fold cylinders and hoses, should be inspected for leaks and synchronization. If the planter has a hydraulic meter drive system, it also should be checked for leaks.
For planters with ground drive meter systems, begin your inspection at the tires. Tires should all be the same size and properly inflated.
“A difference in rolling radius between drive tires will alter meter shaft speeds of planters with more than one ground drive transmission,” Kuster explains. “Improperly inflated or mismatched tires will also affect driveline speeds.”
Check the clutches of section and/or row unit shutoffs to ensure they’re operating correctly. Worn driveline components such as chains, sprockets, bearings and bent shafts should be replaced. Kuster recommends replacing chains and sprockets as a set.
When it comes to seed delivery systems, begin by inspecting the condition of hopper boxes and lids for holes and cracks. The central fill system hoses should be checked for obstructions, especially from “overwinter homesteading by unwanted furry tenants,” Kuster says.
Each row unit also needs individual attention. Check the down-pressure system, and confirm that parallel arms and bushings are in good condition. Replace any broken springs, and check the hooks for excessive wear. Confirm that the adjustment linkage is free and functioning, and lubricate the bushings. Whether pneumatic or hydraulic, check for leaks in hoses.
Meters should be placed on test stands and checked for accuracy. “Each 1 percent singulation deficiency can impact yield by 2 to 2.5 bushels per acre,” Kuster says. “Replace meter components as necessary to maximize the meter’s performance.”
Seed tubes should be checked for wear and obstructions. If they are in good working order, clean them, or replace them if they are damaged. Seed tube guards worn to a width of 5/8-inch should be replaced, Kuster says.
Remove the gauge wheel assemblies and inspect both the gauge wheels and the opener blade scrapers. Kuster recommends replacing wheels with cuts, wear and general deterioration and replacing scrapers with more than a half-inch of wear. Double-disc opener blades should be replaced if the blades have been worn to 14 inches or less. Blade bearings that don’t move freely should also be replaced.
Next, reassemble and adjust the gauge wheel to opener blade setting. Kuster says the two should be close, about 1/16 inch apart, but not touching.
“You’ll also want to inspect the closing wheels for proper alignment with the double disc openers,” he says. “They should be centered on the furrow. Rotate the closing wheels to check the bearings for roughness and replace the bearings if necessary.”
Finally, calibrate the opener blade depth adjustment.
“On a flat surface, like your shop floor, place a two-by-four under each gauge wheel and adjust the gauge wheel stop until the opener blades contact the floor,” Kuster says. “You’re now recalibrated to 1.5-inch planting depth. Do this with each row.”
While they may not have as many components as planters or tractors, tillage tools also need annual inspection and maintenance. Properly maintaining tillage equipment can increase efficiency and eliminate extra trips across a field.
As with the planter, Kuster recommends starting with an examination of the frame, looking for cracked, bent or bowed components. Repair any issues. Next, check that tires are properly inflated and wheel bearings are smooth and well lubricated.
Examine hydraulic hoses and replace any that are cracked or leaking. Check for worn or broken tillage components such as sweeps, chisel points and disc blades. “Damaged or worn cutting edges can increase tractor draft and result in an uneven soil surface,” Kuster adds. “Down-pressure springs should also be adjusted, and any broken springs should be replaced.”
Sunderman says that while annual off-season maintenance may cost some additional money upfront, it can really save in the long run.
“When you need to run, you need to run,” he says. “Maybe I save $100 or $200 by not doing my maintenance, but if something breaks down during that spring rush, it could cost me thousands — not just the cost of the repair, but also the lost opportunity of getting that crop in at the optimal time.”