12 Overlooked Preplanting Maintenance Tasks

Take a day, maybe two, this spring to buy yourself some extra planting season insurance – in the form of preventive maintenance.

You are probably already tending to those common pre-planting chores such as calibrating seed meters, changing the oil in the engine, replacing sweeps on the field cultivator, and the like.

Yet, it’s what you often overlook in your preseason preparations (a dead battery, the engine on a transfer pump that won’t start, a closing wheel bearing that seizes, or a hydraulic hose that blows) that could flare up into a breakdown in a month or so.

Below are 12 of the most-often overlooked preseason maintenance areas and how to get in tip-top shape before planting.

1. Planter closing wheels

Of all planter components, closing (packing) wheels are the most-often overlooked preseason maintenance chore, says planter expert Kevin Kimberley. “They have a huge impact on seed-to-soil contact, which affects rapid emergence,” he points out. 

Kimberley recommends examining the closing wheel assembly for looseness where its arms connect to the row unit. “Grab the assembly and move it up and down and from side to side to check for looseness,” he says. “This could indicate worn bearings, bushings, or cams.”

Also, spin closing disks (if your planter is so equipped) and press wheels, listening for noise, which indicates worn bearings. Finally, examine the assembly to determine if it is bent or cracked. “Planting on a curve or on hillsides can put pressure on mountings, causing undue wear on one side,” Kimberley says.  

2. Drive belts

Brent Oman doubts it would take you more than an hour or so to conduct a key inspection that could save you a day of planting. Inspecting drive belts now – whether they are in use on a tractor engine or a fluid pump – could detect an impending belt blowout that would stop planting for hours or even the day, as you search for a replacement and tackle the often-tedious task of taking the belt assembly apart.

The Gates Corporation engineer offers this belt-inspection guide. “A great general rule is to recall what a belt looks like new as a comparison,” Oman says. “Give them a squeeze. They should deflect and then spring back. A belt that is hard as a rock should be replaced. What has happened in this case is that rubber in the belt compounding has leached out, mostly likely due to high operating heat. It’s the rubber that gives the belt a lot of its needed flexibility.

Here are six other signs that warn when a belt needs to be replaced.

  • Sidewall glazing. This warning sign indicates the belt has been slipping excessively. Once a belt has become glazed, it will continue to slip – even if its tension is increased. 
  • Cuts and unusual wear patterns. Oman points out that an unusual wear pattern is likely caused by worn, misaligned, or damaged pulley sheaves. If you see this damage, the pulley may need to be replaced, as well.
  • Damage spots. Oman explains that most damage is caused by “the freak accident, such as a piece of debris coming in contact with the belt. Foreign objects getting between the belt and pulley sheaves often damage both belt teeth and internal tensile cords. If the damage on the belt is widespread, look around and see what might be causing it,” he says.
  • Flaking, sticky or swollen belt surfaces. This is caused by oil or chemical contamination, such as fertilizer or herbicides.
  • Cracks radiating from the bottom of the belt vee to the top.
  • Frayed spots.

Oman also recommends taking time to check belt tension using a spring scale-type tester. “Improper tension and misalignment are the two most common causes of belt deterioration,” he says. This simple device (retails for around $15) uses a sliding rubber O-ring that reads deflection force. Compare that reading to the recommended deflection force at gates.com/drivedesign

3. Planter drive components

Every component on a planter drive system (including the transmission) should be examined. That includes chains or cables, sprockets, idlers, clutches, and their bushings or bearings. 

“Replace overly rusty, stiff, or kinked chains,” Kimberley says. “A faulty chain can set up a vibration that affects meter accuracy, especially for hard-to-plant seed sizes.” 

On cable drives, remove the unit and turn the cable to see if it’s rotating smoothly. 

4. Implement tires

Implement tires are the unsung heroes of the planting season. Key to maintaining tillage or planting depth in the field and then carting massive weights down the road, they don’t require much more maintenance than just an inflation check prior to and during the season, says Wayne Birkenholtz of Firestone Tire. Make it a habit to check inflation regularly during the season. Proper inflation greatly prolongs an implement tire’s life, he adds. 

Underinflation can cause the tire to wear rapidly and unevenly, particularly in the shoulder area, eventually leading to cracks in the carcass. Overinflation, on the other hand, creates an underdeflected tire leading to increased wear on the center of the tire. Moreover, the tightly stretched carcass becomes more susceptible to impact breaks.

Correct inflation pays off by keeping a toolbar or an implement level in operation as well as making sure drive tires (on older planters or fertilizer applicators) are turning at the same speed, says Kevin Kimberley.

Other preseason tire tips include inspecting tires and their rims for damage. Also, lower the implement or planter and, if possible, spin the rim by hand, listening for bearing noise that can indicate a worn bearing. “Now is the time to replace a bearing that is going bad rather than in the field,” Kimberley notes. “You could also end up scoring the spindle in the process.” 

5. Air bags

Planter air bags rarely present repair issues, but their connections can spring leaks in time from vibration and hoses becoming brittle. “With the air bags inflated and with a spray bottle full of soapy water, walk down the planter and spray every connection. If bubbles appear, then you know you need to replace the hose,” Kevin Kimberley says. “The impact of a leaking connection is that the individual row unit’s ability to maintain accurate seed depth as well as good seed-to-soil contact is jeopardized.” 

6. Batteries

Sudden death syndrome isn’t restricted to soybeans. Batteries sitting in stored vehicles and machinery can suffer the same injury. In these cases, sudden death is the result of the battery’s tie (or buss) bar (connecting all of its cells together) becoming degraded (thin) and then suddenly breaking, explains SF Engine Man Ray Bohacz. 

“When this happens, all of the battery’s cells will check fine with a hydrometer, but the battery will produce 0 volts because it is broken inside.” 

Bohacz says performing a load test (conducted with a volt-ohm meter as shown below) in the winter usually reveals the tie bar becoming challenged, predicting a potential midspring sudden death. “If you do not have that ability to conduct a load test, replace any battery that is 5 years or older with a new one designed for heavy-duty use,” he urges. “Just because the engine cranks fine right now is no indicator of the internal condition of the battery. A battery with more than 14.6 volts after the surface charge is removed with a load tester is internally sulphated and is on the way out.” 

7. Small engines

Many planting days have been derailed by a small gas engine on a nurse trailer or a seed tender that doesn’t want to run, Ray Bohacz has observed. 

To avoid this frustration, the Engine Man recommends cleaning and tightening the engine carburetor and intake manifold while conducting regular maintenance such as changing oil, spark plug(s), and any air, fuel, and oil filters. 

Here are three more preseason small engine maintenance pointers: 

  • Put antiseize compound on the threads of the spark plug and dielectric compound in the boot of the wire. 
  • Inspect the engine shroud for signs of any rodent nests. If necessary, remove the sheet metal and blow out any dust from the cylinder head fins. 
  • Run the engine and adjust the carburetor mixture. Then, dose the gasoline with 1 ounce per gallon of Chevron Techron Fuel System Cleaner. Let it run for one hour at full throttle or one tank of fuel, Bohacz says. This will clean the internal passages of the carburetor and remove carbon deposits from the intake valve and piston crown. You may have to slightly retune the carburetor if the engine was carbon laden. Use gasoline treated in the same manner the first few days of planting so that everything is well cleaned out.

8. Air conditioning

Air conditioning maintenance should rank right up there with regular to-do requirements such as changing engine oil and air filters, says Engine Man Ray Bohacz.

Actually, AC filters should be pulled and cleaned or replaced every time engine filters are changed. At that same time, use compressed air to blow dust and debris from the filter cavity in addition to the system’s condenser, compressor clutch, and evaporator. Check your tractor’s operator’s manual for additional cleaning recommendations specific to your models. 

It would seem that the biggest reason for maintaining the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system on a vehicle would be to maintain personal comfort.

Poor maintenance may also be costing you money, as it makes the HVAC blower work harder, ultimately shortening its lifespan and reducing efficiency. 

The HVAC system must also have an adequate level of coolant. Gone are the days when you could check it yourself and recharge the system with freon. Today’s coolant generally requires the use of a pressure gauge and professional charging. Nevertheless, there is a simple way you can look for leaks. Because it has an oil base, any coolant that leaks from a fitting or a joint will collect dirt in much the same way as a hydraulic leak. So look for dirt buildup around the hoses and components.

It’s also a good idea to clean the compressor clutch with compressed air. Check the operator’s manual for additional recommendations on your specific tractor or combine. 

Troubleshooting and diagnosing an AC System: 

  • Start engine and set to normal fast idle speed. 
  • Turn on air conditioner and set for maximum cooling with blower fan on high speed. 
  • Operate air conditioner for 5 to 10 minutes to stabilize system. 
  • Check for charge by noting sight glass if used. Note gauge readings for normal pressures. 
  • Establish whether the electrical components (thermostat, blower, and clutch) are functioning properly. 
  • Check that the air passages and ducts, refrigerant lines, hoses, compressor drive, and belts are all free. 
  • Service the unit in accordance with your operator’s manual. 
  • Take it into your machinery dealership for additional checks if troubles persist.

9. Engine coolant

“The additive package in the coolant becomes consumed from boiling cycles in the cylinder head during high thermal loading, such as pulling tillage equipment or a planter,” says SF Engine Man Ray Bohacz. “When this occurs, the coolant will allow for cylinder liner cavitation, electrolysis, and other events that can and will damage the engine.” 

For this reason, Bohacz recommends that you check engine coolant using test strips every winter. Available at automotive supply stores, test strips allow you to quickly evaluate coolant’s pH, freeze point, and, most importantly, its supplemental coolant additives (SCA) in the fluid.

Recommended levels of SCA in coolant should range between 1.5 to 3 units per gallon of coolant. Using the test strip results, add SCA based on the size of the engine’s radiator being evaluated. (Refer to your owner’s manual for additional information on SCA levels.) 

10. Electrical grounds

Nothing drives electrical systems (monitors and controllers) crazy and makes them act wacky like an errant ground circuit on a tractor, says SF Engine Man Ray Bohacz. That’s why he highly recommends removing ground wires, cleaning them, and snugging them down tight before heading to the field. “If possible, examine the eyelet or wire connection for corrosion,” he says.

Next, use a voltmeter to do a voltage drop test. “Connect the voltmeter’s positive lead to the ground and the negative lead to the battery negative. Then, evoke the circuit and have a helper read the meter,” Bohacz says. “The reading on the ground should be less than 0.20 volt. If it is greater than that, find where the high impedance is.”

11. Tillage finishing attachments

Finishing attachments, due to their location at the back of tillage implements, are often ignored in preseason maintenance chores. Kevin Kimberley warns that these attachments do wear, can break, and will have a huge effect on how well a field is prepared for planting.

“Attachments – whether they be coil tines or rolling baskets – are crucial to leveling fields and distributing residue,” he says. 

Kimberley offers a simple inspection guide to attachments that begins with examining their frame for structural breaking and mounting points for wear. Next, scan all soil-engaging components for wear.  

“Coil tine length is particularly critical to how well an implement performs. Pay attention to the tine or spike length at the front of the ranks as they wear fastest,” he says.

Regarding rolling baskets, the key here is to appraise their bearings by spinning them to determine smooth rotation. 

Finish off the chore by examining the baskets for bent rods or bars. 

12. Hydraulic hoses

The lifeblood of the modern planter is the hydraulic oil coursing through the hoses from the tractor. When those hoses go south, so does a planting schedule. An entire day can be blown making a repair. Even worse, what if it’s the hose that supplies the transport wheels’ cylinders on a piece of tillage implement running between fields? asks Tim Deans of Gates Corporation. 

Avoiding such disasters is really quite simple, Deans says. “Grab a pad, pen, and paint marker and walk every piece of equipment prior to the season,” he recommends. “Inspect all the components’ hydraulic systems to look for problems. Better to find and fix a problem in the shop than in the middle of a field.”

A thorough inspection of most implements shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. Begin by always releasing the pressure in any system. Then, starting at the hitch, work your way back to the component (cylinder, orbit motor, etc.) being supplied.

Mark needed repairs such as a crushed hose or cracked fitting with the paint marker. “Use the pad and pen to write down developing problems not needing immediate repair,” Deans suggests.

During your inspection, examine the length of all hoses, looking for wetness, “which can indicate a puncture in the hose,” Deans says. “You will also want to look for abraded, cracked, crushed, or punctured hoses, all of which call for replacement.”

The last item during the hose inspection is to look for twisted or distorted hoses. Twisting misaligns the steel reinforcement of a hose, reducing its ability to withstand pressure, Deans warns. Twisting a high-pressure hose by as little as 7° can reduce its service life by as much as 90%.

The solution here is not replacement but rather loosening the hose to eliminate the twist.

“If the twist is happening during movement, such as when the implement is being folded, then use elbows and adapters to eliminate the twist,” he advises.

For a hose not showing obvious distress, check the condition of its cover by pressing a ballpoint pen into the rubber, Deans says. The pen shouldn’t permanently indent or penetrate the cover. “If it leaves a mark, then write it down in the pad for reinspection next year.” 

Read more about

Tip of the Day

Agronomy Tip: Utilize Soil Temperature Probe

A soil temperature probe can be a great tool to help plan planting.

Machinery Talk