You can dodge most major machinery breakdowns by regularly inspecting, cleaning and replacing essential components, says Dean Potter, a mechanic at Haug Implement, Litchfield, MN.

“About 80% of the equipment failures I see are due to lack of maintenance or lack of thorough inspection and could have been prevented,” he says. “On combines, bearings are the most common things that cause problems.”

In addition to checking bearings, Potter recommends inspecting chains and belts on a daily basis. “Look at chains and belts and give them regular adjustments,” he says. “Greasing and changing oil are also important. Some farmers are meticulous about that and others aren't.”

Those farmers who tend to be the most meticulous about machinery maintenance know that they have a lot to lose if a breakdown occurs, says Potter.

“Smaller, part-time farmers sometimes feel like they can afford to gamble more (on maintenance),” he adds, “because they have less invested in the field.”

However, even farmers who operate small acreages should think twice before skimping on maintenance, Potter advises. “The cost of the downtime is typically much higher than the cost of the repair,” he says. “There is a cost to maintenance, but generally it comes down to pay me now or pay me later.”

Operating conditions, particularly muddy or rocky conditions, can also make a big difference on how often maintenance is needed, says Potter.

“Picking rocks in soybeans can be an important thing to do in some fields,” he adds. “Rocks aren't good on combines.”

Because combines rely on multiple moving parts, which wear with use, inspections and adjustments are important both prior to and during field operations, says Potter. “Some operators are very much in tune to their machine and to what it can or cannot do,” he says. “It helps to take the time to adjust the combine (for different conditions).”

Here are 10 common-sense steps that most farmers can take to avoid combine breakdowns, according to Potter and two agricultural Extension machinery specialists:

  1. Start with a preseason inspection. “To avoid breakdowns, farmers need to give their combines a rigorous preseason inspection,” says Dan Ess, Purdue University Extension ag engineer. “That's number one. The obvious places to check are chains, belts and bearings.”

  2. Review your operator's manual. “Check your manual for the appropriate settings for rotor or cylinder speed, concave clearance and fan speed,” advises Mark Hanna, Iowa State University Extension ag engineer. “Also check settings for screens in the cleaning shoe.”

  3. Inspect and clean daily. “Keep bearing surfaces clean of dust and crop residue,” says Hanna. “Check for leaks of pressurized oil lines such as those to the turbo charger.”

  4. Use air, not water. High-pressure air is the preferred cleaning tool for most combine components. “Be careful if using high pressure water to clean the combine, even on the outside of the machine,” warns Hanna. “Water forced into interior surfaces can cause rust.”

  5. Pre-scout fields. Farmers should pre-scout fields for crop size, ear size and weed patches, and be ready to make adjustments as needed, says Hanna. For example, the stripper bar settings on the corn head should have about a 1¼-in. gap for normal settings. For smaller-sized ears, he says that gap should be narrowed.

  6. Adjust to field conditions. “As the crop dries down in the heat of the day, fine-tuning can help,” says Potter. “Each time you change to a different corn or soybean variety, check to see if you need to make some adjustments.”

  7. Check grain quality. “If the combine isn't giving you good quality grain, you might have a worn grain elevator chain,” says Potter. “If the elevator chain is damaging grain, it could lead to other breakdowns.” Feeder house adjustments might also be needed, he adds, if grain quality is deteriorating.

  8. Be prepared. Keep a cell phone with you or have some other way to quickly call for help if you need it, recommends Hanna. He also advises having two ABC-type fire extinguishers available on the combine. A 5-lb. model should be in the cab and a 15- to 20-lb. model should be mounted at ground level. Having a small shovel on board the combine can also come in handy to quickly throw dirt on flames.

  9. Don't delay repairs. “If you know some things aren't working right, get them worked on right away before you forget,” advises Potter. “Proper maintenance starts right at the end of the season before you put the machine away.”

  10. Clean before storing. Prior to placing a combine in storage for the winter, farmers should clean and remove the battery and place it in a heated storage area where it won't freeze, says Hanna. He also advises giving the combine a good, overall cleaning.

“Also before harvest, make sure the skid plates under the grain platform are clean, and check that they give you a full range of movement,” says Hanna. “Clean under the corn snouts on the corn head and check and clean the gathering chains. Also clean any accumulated debris on the cooling fins on the radiator, the hydraulic oil cooler and the air conditioner condenser.”

Inspect Combine Components Before Harvest

To help in efforts to clean and adjust your combine prior to harvest, Mark Hanna, Iowa State University Extension ag engineer, has developed a preseason combine component checklist.

You may also want to keep and expand on the following checklist as you review your operator's manual prior to harvest:

  • Air conditioner (clean cooling fins, check the drain tube for plugs)

  • Auger spirals (look for worn or bent flighting on cross augers and unloading augers)

  • Battery (check, clean)

  • Bearings (check wear, condition)

  • Cleaning shoe (clean, adjust, lubricate as needed)

  • Corn head (check condition of ear savers)

  • Cutter bar (check flexibility and movement)

  • Cylinder or rotor rasp bars (check manual for allowable wear)

  • Drive belts (check for tension, look for excessive wear and cracks)

  • Feeder house (adjust setting of lower drum, inspect sheet metal on underside for holes, cracks or worn or thin material, and replace if needed)

  • Filters (replace)

  • Fluid levels for engine oil, coolant, hydraulic fluid and gear case oil (check both condition and amount)

  • Gathering chains (clean, check tension and condition)

  • Grain bins (clean with a shop vacuum)

  • Grain platform (check knife sharpness and wear, examine for full back-and-forth cut)

  • Lights (clean, replace bulbs)

  • Reflector tape (clean and/or replace)

  • Rubber paddles on grain elevator (check for wear /condition)

  • Skid plates under grain platform (check for full range of movement)

  • Stripper bar (check settings)

  • Slip clutch (check operation and bolt condition — look for broken or sheared bolts)

  • Tires (check air pressure, tread wear and condition).