Make a wrong move at harvest and it will cost you dearly, either to your pocketbook, to your health or both.

According to John Shutske, a farm safety and health specialist with the University of Minnesota, downtime due to an injury or a mechanical breakdown costs up to $325/day for an average 800-acre Minnesota corn and soybean farmer.

That's the downtime cost during a typical day with fairly good fall weather, not including medical expenses or repairs. Downtime losses can skyrocket to $900/day if delays prevent necessary fall tillage or if snow falls early, before harvest is complete.

Not all costly mistakes at harvest are related to downtime, but many are. Here are 10 tips from crop consultants and extension specialists to avoid making similar mistakes on your farm:

  1. Plan ahead

    Farmers should prepare equipment early and “set machinery to make it hum,” advises Jay Johnson, owner of Prairie Crop Pro-Tech consulting services, Beaman, IA. If machinery, bins and dryers aren't ready when the crop is, you'll be losing time and money, he adds.

    Vern Hofman, North Dakota State University (NDSU) ag engineer, says a common bottleneck that often slows corn harvest and puts the crop at risk is inadequate dryer capacity. If your dryer is too small, try making arrangements for drying and storage at a nearby grain elevator.

    In addition, at least one full day will be needed to check machinery for proper maintenance, adjustment and safety before harvest, says Mark Hanna, Iowa State University extension ag engineer. He advises reviewing owner's manuals before making adjustments.

  2. Check moisture levels

    “Moisture levels of 25% are not too high to start corn harvest,” says Bill Craig, Maxi-Yield Consulting Services, Carlinville, IL. Craig recommends checking early market opportunities to move high-moisture corn to grain terminals — without being discounted. He says waiting too long to shell corn will likely result in an increase in harvest losses and a greater likelihood that, when switching to soybean harvest, moisture levels will be too dry to achieve optimum market prices.

  3. Evaluate field loss frequently

    A good operator and a well-maintained and properly adjusted combine should minimize corn kernel yield loss to about 1%, says Ron Schuler, Wisconsin ag engineer. For example, if yield is 200 bu./acre, kernel losses should average about 2 bu./acre or less.

    To check field losses, construct a 1 sq. ft. frame, either out of wood or wire, and use it often to check harvest losses, says NDSU's Hofman. Toss the frame a few times in an area where you've begun harvest and check the number of kernels inside the square. A two-kernel loss per square foot represents about a 1 bu./acre loss.

    A normal-sized ear on the ground per 187 ft. of row (in 30-in. rows) also represents a 1 bu./acre loss. If you see a lot of lost ears, ear saver equipment may be necessary. (See “Corn Savers,” page 36, August 2004 for more information.)

    If kernel loss is a problem, first check corn head gatherer components, such as gathering chains, stalk rolls and deck plates, and make adjustments. Research shows that most harvest losses occur at the gathering unit, says Hanna.

    Also, check your driving speed — you may need to slow down. If threshing is adequate and harvest losses are minimal, keep the cylinder speed at the lower end of the recommended range, he adds.

  4. Harvest at full capacity

    “Drive the combine fast enough to load the machine, but not too fast to ruin separation efficiency,” recommends Hanna. “The key is to check losses behind the combine and make adjustments accordingly.”

  5. Check on problem fields

    “If a field yields below expectation, check it right away to determine the cause,” Craig says. “It's a lot easier to find out whether the cause is related to insects, disease, drainage or some other problem during harvest than at any other time.”

    Fields with heavy corn borer or rootworm damage, stalk rot or other factors that put the crop at risk deserve priority over fields that are not at risk for heavy field losses, he says. However, to claim crop insurance, Craig advises farmers to document yields or leave a portion of the field unharvested to allow insurance representatives to verify the claim.

  6. Calibrate yield monitors

    Farmers should keep records of yields on a field-by-field basis so that improvements can be made the following year. To ensure that yield data is accurate, Johnson advises farmers to recalibrate yield monitors every time they harvest a different hybrid or every time moisture levels change significantly between fields.

  7. Document problems

    “Take into account what weeds you have and where they are in the field so you can revise your herbicide program for next year,” advises Craig. “It's a lot easier to harvest weed-free fields than weedy ones.”

    You should also monitor and record other agronomic problems — such as insect pressure and disease, and when and where you found them — so that adjustments can be made, he adds.

  8. Preserve identity

    Take the necessary steps to keep value-added or biotech corn separate from other hybrids, says Craig. You'll minimize your risks and enhance your earnings if you can preserve your crop's identity and channel it into the right market.

  9. Stay safe and clean

    Keep combine platforms and steps free of crop debris and tools and use handrails, advises Hanna. “Falls are common and injuries can be serious when entering and exiting the cab.”

    He also says to periodically clean your combine and its engine compartment to reduce the risk of fire. Good tools to have include a folding shovel for throwing dirt onto a fire and two, 10-lb. ABC dry-chemical fire extinguishers — one for the cab and one at ground level.

  10. Phone home

    For safety and peace of mind, carry a cell phone and periodically let loved ones know where you are, what you are doing and where you'll be next.

Stop Soybean Losses

Combine operators should aim for an average soybean harvest loss of less than 1.5 bu./acre, says Ronald Schuler, Wisconsin ag engineer.

Since most losses occur at the gathering unit, inspecting and adjusting the reel and cutter bar are critical.

SUGGESTIONS FOR LOWERING SOYBEAN LOSSES:

  • Regularly inspect, maintain and replace guards, wear plates, hold-down clips and knife sections.

  • Operate the peripheral reel about 15% faster than the combine.

  • Set the reel center 6 in. in front of the cutter bar if plants are standing straight, 12 in. in front if plants are heavily lodged.

  • Keep the cutter bar close to the soil surface.

Schuler also recommends occasionally checking the grain tank. If you see too many broken beans, you'll need to inspect and adjust the cylinder/rotor speed and concave clearance, he says.

If you find too many pods and leaves in the bin, you'll need to check the sieve opening and possibly adjust the cleaning fan speed.