Strategic thinking may be the best medicine to relieve common harvesttime headaches, such as delays due to bottlenecks and breakdowns, point out Extension engineers Mark Hanna, Iowa State University, and Bill Wilcke, University of Minnesota. Efficiency during harvest starts by anticipating the potential for downtime while there's still time to take steps to avoid or minimize that frustration, they report.

“Producers need to calculate ahead of time how many bu./hour they can reasonably harvest on a good day, what the capacity of their wagons and trucks are and how long it takes to transport the crop out of the field,” says Hanna. “Simply writing all that down and looking at those numbers reveals a lot on where to focus efforts to increase efficiency.”

However, not all delays or bottlenecks occur in the field. Wilcke advises spending an equal amount of time thinking through grain bin layout, grain handling capacity and management. “The limiting factor for a speedy harvest isn't typically the combine,” he says. “You need to look at the whole system and see where the bottlenecks are.”

Uncovering new ways to improve grain flow during harvest will go a long way toward eliminating stress, these experts say. They provide the following 10 tips to help harvest proceed virtually migraine-free:

  1. Create a checklist and inspect

    Farmers should develop a detailed checklist and inspect all major machinery several weeks prior to harvest, advises Hanna. “On the combine, look for worn auger flighting, rasp bars or any other worn parts and replace them,” he says. “Make inspections inside and out. If the same fuel has been in the tank over winter, check its condition.” In particular, biodiesel will degrade more readily compared to regular diesel fuel, he points out. (For more information to avoid machinery problems, see page 6, Sept. 2005 issue, “Dodge Downtime.”)

  2. Minimize surprises

    Hanna also recommends scouting the weed situation and the standability of the crop prior to harvest. Farmers can then adjust their harvest schedule to allow more time in weedy areas or to wait for green weeds to be killed by frost. Lodged corn should be harvested first, he adds, and farmers should consider locating and mounting a corn reel on the corn head to minimize yield loss if corn lodging is severe.

  3. Consider traffic flow

    Wilcke advises farmers to make a drawing of their grain storage facilities and think about the potential traffic-flow bottlenecks. “Where possible, try to configure facilities so trucks can drive through with no need to back up,” he says. “If vehicles must back up to unload grain, or for any other reason, it slows the process and is also a safety hazard.”

  4. Add automation and/or labor

    Adding automation or dedicating labor to existing equipment is one fairly low-cost method to improve grain handling efficiencies by providing continuous grain flow and operation. “Consider installing an automated grain handling system, if feasible, so conveyors can continue working while trucks or wagons are heading back to the field,” Wilcke explains. “You can also dedicate a person to remain at the grain storage facility to manage the conveyors and dryer to avoid bottlenecks.”

  5. Increase conveyor capacity

    In situations where conveyors cause delays in unloading, consider adding higher capacity conveyors, advises Wilcke. Sometimes, using two conveyors simultaneously can be helpful to double unloading capacity, he adds.

  6. Contemplate bin conversions

    Farmers don't always need to buy new bins to increase grain storage efficiency, points out Wilcke. “Consider converting bins that have been used for other purposes to use as a wet holding bin,” he explains. “In-bin drying systems can also be used as a wet holding bin. A powered sweep auger will help take the grain out first that's been in the bin longest to prevent spoilage.”

  7. Develop contingency plans

    “Have a backup plan for labor and machinery,” Hanna says. “Check the status of repairs or replacement for questionable equipment.”

  8. Add capacity in the field

    “Buying a semi-trailer to haul grain from the field, rather than using a tractor and wagon, could help to speed up harvest and may lead to other business opportunities,” notes Wilcke. “Farmers should also consider adding wet grain holding capacity in the field by having extra grain carts or wagons available for unloading.”

  9. Install dump pits

    Consider installing a below-ground dump pit, if feasible, recommends Wilcke. “Another way to unload quickly, if you don't have a below-ground dump pit, is to unload into an above-ground hopper-bottom bin, or some sort of surge bin,” he adds. “That way, the main conveyor can continue to work steadily while the truck heads back to the field.”

  10. Plan for safety

    Improve safety while also improving efficiency, recommends Hanna. He advises reviewing the safety section of machinery owner's manuals, training employees on what to do in an emergency and having cell phones for workers in the field. Lighting and markings are also important safety features, he adds.

“Replace reflectors, amber flashers and red tail lamps as needed prior to harvest,” says Hanna. “Also, have at least one ABC-type fire extinguisher on the combine and check its condition before harvest. A 5-lb. unit will fit easily in the cab, but a 15-20 lb. unit should be available at ground level.”

A more long-term solution to harvest bottlenecks may require buying newer, bigger equipment or bins, notes Wilcke. “It could be that you just need a bigger dryer, conveyor, dump pit or holding bin,” he says.

However, when buying new bins and equipment, think through carefully both current and future requirements. “Look at what is realistically needed for the future in terms of potential increases in crop yields and acreage,” says Wilcke. “Also, think about your future markets, such as ethanol or biodiesel facilities. You need to match handling and storage capacity with the market that you're selling to or the one that you're probably going to be selling to.”