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Update: Last-Minute Tech Maneuvers for Harvest

Updated: 09/22/2015 @ 11:38am

What's your game plan? Since many input decisions are made based on product performance, accurately measuring and tracking yields are crucial parts of one Ohio farmer’s playbook.

Harvest is Jim Braddock’s one and only chance to monitor, map, and evaluate data on his crop’s performance. His entire season has led up to this pivotal moment. The maneuvers he makes in the next few weeks will determine what his playbook will include next season.

Like a coach leading a team, the plays that the Fredericktown, Ohio, farmer calls before he takes the field ensures he is collecting the most accurate information possible, and include a properly calibrated yield monitor.

“If I’m going to use the data from my John Deere 2630 monitor to make important decisions, I have to take the time to keep it calibrated,” he says. “If it’s not calibrated within 2% to 3%, as far as I’m concerned, the data is worthless.”

One and done is not enough
As one of the most widely adopted technologies in ag, ensuring a yield monitor is at the top of its game should automatically be part of your playbook.

“Economic risk in agriculture has increased dramatically,” says John Barker, assistant professor and Extension educator, Ohio State University. “Considering the amount of economic risk involved in each decision, taking the time to properly calibrate a yield monitor is essential if the data will be used to make future agronomic decisions for a farming operation.”

A recent poll on Agriculture.com reveals that 67% of farmers calibrate their monitors. While a large percentage may be calibrating, the real question is are they doing it as often as they should?

“Many producers only calibrate their equipment once a year,” says Matt Darr, associate professor, Iowa State University.

He recommends a minimum of once per year per crop plus additional calibrations whenever the moisture content changes by ±4%.

“For a typical Midwest corn/soybean producer, this results in usually three calibrations per year,” says Darr. “That’s certainly not too much of a burden to maintain good data quality.”

The reason you may have a one-and-done mind-set revolves around the process itself. “In general, the calibration process is more complex than many other machinery setup processes.

Yet, it is so critical to the evaluation of crop performance,” notes Darr.

“It takes a little time (about an hour if you’ve used the monitor in the previous season) to calibrate properly, but not that much compared to the value of the data you’re going to get in return,” adds Barker.

Taking the time to properly calibrate a yield monitor goes a long way when it comes time for Barker to assist Braddock in making important decisions based on yield data.

“I take his yield data and make variable-rate fertilizer prescriptions for him. We’ll talk about what fertilizer amounts he’s going to use, what fields he’s going to fertilize, and in what order,” explains Barker.

It’s also why Braddock spends two to three hours shortly before harvest with Paul Kanney, a Shearer Equipment AMS specialist.

“Paul makes sure everything is working. He gives me a refresher course, because when I only use something a few weeks out of the year, I tend to forget things. Especially since I’m 60 – I seem to forget more stuff now,” laughs Braddock.

“As agriculture continues to evolve, data is only going to be more valuable down the road,” says Barker. “You can’t go back and re-create it. Once you have accurate data, it becomes invaluable. Two years from now Jim and I may look at that data in a totally different manner. Because we have accurate data, we are able to do that.”

Calibration Playbook for Yield Monitors

Before the game
Each new season means retraining to implement the plays in Jim Braddock’s playbook. “I recommend that you check your technology two to four weeks before you head to the field for harvest,” says AMS specialist Paul Kanney, Shearer Equipment. 

The plays below are in Braddock’s playbook. How many are in yours?

  • Back up any data from the previous season and delete files from memory devices. “Keep several backup copies of raw data in different locations in case it is lost, stolen, damaged, or modified,” says John Barker, Ohio State University.
  • Check the memory card to be sure it works properly. “Last fall was the first year I used wireless data transfer as a trial,” says Braddock. “Every time I left a field, the system was sending that information to the APEX program through the cloud. It worked really well because it’s easier to share it with John.”
  • Contact your local dealer to ensure the most recent software and hardware upgrades for yield monitoring and mapping systems are installed.
  • Check all cables, connections, and sensors for wear or damage. “There have been times when equipment has been in the shed for eight months and a raccoon, rat, or mouse has chewed on a wire,” says Barker. “Check everything ahead of time, because if you have to order something, it may take a couple of days or a week to get it depending on what cable it is and where it’s coming from.”
  • Make sure elevator-mounted moisture sensor units are grain-free, the manual clean-out motor works, and all doors are shut.
  • Inspect flow sensor. Look for wear on the grain elevator as well as missing or worn paddles. Verify that the spacing between the paddles and the top of the elevator meets manufacturer’s requirements.
  • Look for wear on the flow sensor’s impact or deflector plates. Replace if worn. “I check the sensors on the combine, because if they are not calibrated when the yield monitor is calibrated, there can be variations in performance,” says Kanney.
  • NOTEWORTHY: “If you recently purchased a combine (new or used), verify that the yield monitor is installed correctly,” says Barker.

Taking the field

  • Ensure a memory card is installed in the yield monitor before you turn things on. “I make sure everything is talking to one another and is error-free,” says Kanney. An error message typically appears on the display if there is an issue.
  • Check to see if you are receiving a good differential correction signal. If you have a subscription, make sure it is renewed.
  • Raise and lower the header to ensure the stop height switch operates. “Some monitors have a manual switch that turns data collection to your monitor on and off. Adjust the header height switch to accommodate the preferences of different operators during harvest,” says Barker.
  • Set row width according to the number of rows for a row-crop header and the appropriate width of a cutting platform header.
  • Engage the separator and watch the elevator speed on the monitor to see if it is working.
  • Put the combine in drive and make sure the ground speed indicator is working.
  • Use accurate scales to weigh grain.

“I have scales on my grain cart, which makes it much simpler to check the calibration on the yield monitor. There will be times I check calibration two, three, and even four times a day,” says Braddock. “If it’s consistently off more than 3%, I recalibrate it. I’m going to have some variation, but 3% is my threshold.”

Certified scales or calibrated weigh wagons are recommended, says Barker. “If you use weigh wagons, leave it in one location in the field. Moving the wagon through a field causes it to shake and bounce, which can throw off calibration. Use the same scales throughout calibration,” he says.

During the game

  • Take temperature readings close to the moisture sensor on the combine. “Collect readings when the combine has been operating at normal temperatures for several hours,” notes Barker. “For example, taking a reading from the combine when it has been in the shed or under a shade tree is much different than under direct sunlight.”
  • Conduct moisture calibrations for each grain type. Take representative samples harvested throughout the loads.
  • Use typical field conditions rather than a road or waterway when calibrating for ground speed. “Tire slippage can create inaccuracy with calibration,” says Barker.
  • Harvest calibration loads at different flow rates. “Yield will vary throughout the field. Adjusting flow rates improves accuracy. Calibration loads should be between 3,000 and 6,000 pounds. This helps reduce variability with excess grain in the combine,” notes Barker.
  • Gather loads in well-represented areas of the field. “Avoid starting calibration loads on turn rows, weed patches, or areas of major topography changes in the field,” says Barker. “Hillsides and rolling ground can impact calibration load data because of how the grain impacts the flow sensor. If you are unable to avoid topographical changes, get a good representation of loads going up and down as well as side to side on a hill.”
  • Calibrate for each type of grain. Combine dynamics change from wear and tear and can influence the outcome of your yield data.
  • Calibrate for different moisture levels per grain type. “For example, corn at 25% moisture moves through a combine much differently than corn at 17% moisture,” says Barker.

The original version of this article appeared in the August 2014 issue of Successful Farming magazine.

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