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The Combine: King of the Harvest

The combine, short for combine harvester, is an essential and complex machine designed for efficient harvesting of mass quantities of grain. Modern combines can cut a swath through a field more than 40 feet wide.

The name comes from combining three essential harvest functions – reaping, threshing and winnowing. Corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, rye, barley, sorghum, flax, sunflowers and canola can all be harvested with a head designed for that particular grain.

Hiram Moore patented the first U.S. combine in 1935. Early versions were horse-drawn, followed by models that were pulled behind a tractor. The mid-twentieth century saw the introduction of the self-propelled combine, and by the 1980s they began to come equipped with on-board electronics to measure operation and yield data.

Here you will find more information on how to select the right machine for your farm, and the best maintenance and operating practices to get the most from the combine when it’s time to harvest.

Combines Keep Getting Better

Safe and efficient grain harvesting depends on choosing the right combine harvester for the job. Equipment manufacturers, including John Deere, AGCO, Case IH, New Holland, and Claas, continue to advance technology and design to meet farmers’ needs. New models offer grain tanks as large as 485-bushels with unloading speeds of 6 bushels per second. New apps allow farmers to remotely monitor combine performance. Self-propelled combines were invented to use less fuel than those pulled behind a tractor, and new models continue that trend, with features that improve traction, driver response, and in some cases offer a special gear for road travel.

Used Combines Are Best for Some Farms

For some, the cost of a new combine may be prohibitive. Luckily, used machines are available. Coming off a string of lean sales years, machinery dealers are ready to bargain, and combines can be one of the best buys around.

The specific features of any model will determine its value when new and when used. Rigid auger headers depreciate their value faster than the newer flexing draper headers, and the machinery brand can make a difference. Buyers should discuss the combine’s past use with the dealer as replacement of belts and other parts can get expensive.

Repair and Maintenance Are Key

Whether new or used, combines require proper care and maintenance. Today’s equipment is designed to run at 100% capacity, but achieving that goal requires daily attention and knowledge of the machine’s mechanical and electronic features.

Proper care begins before the harvest, with a pre-season inspection and special attention to trouble spots that see excessive wear during use.

The cleaning shoe is one of those parts. Cleaning the shoe is a dirty job, but a necessary one to control grain loss and maintain combine capacity.

The pre-season inspection should also include an assessment of the previous year’s harvest. A wet harvest will increase mud deposits on combine parts. A dry harvest will create dust accumulation.

Taking Care of the Corn Header

Worn corn heads are one of the leading causes of grain loss, as much as 60% according to a recent study by Iowa State University. Proper adjustment and maintenance can minimize that impact and improve corn harvesting. A sound pre-season inspection should include gathering chain tension, free-moving deck plates, a well-working drive system and an assessment of stalk roller condition. Stalks of today’s corn varieties are tougher than in the past and combines travel at faster speeds, causing more stress to combine header parts.

Grain Platform Options

Combines come with essentially two types of grain platforms. The traditional platform features an auger with a steel floor. The draper platform uses a belt to feed the plant into the combine to separate the grain. A flex draper uses flex cutterbars that self-adjust as the head passes over uneven ground or small obstacles.

Flex draper users report less grain loss and fewer problems with plugging from wet plants.

Harvest Tips

Adjusting a combine to run at peak capacity is an art. A simple adjustment to one part can impact operation of several more. Experts say to get the most from your crop, make frequent use of the combine’s operator’s manual and make only one adjustment at a time. It’s best to begin with the suggested settings, then adjust as crop conditions change.

The goal is clean grain with minimal loss. That means the cutting platform, head, feeder house, threshing mechanism, and cleaning shoe must all work in cohort, in a wide range of field conditions.

Weather damage to crops can add to harvest challenges. There are tricks to harvesting downed corn, but first the farmer should determine if the crop is worth salvaging or if the loss is too great.

The most important factor in any harvest is safety. Know the crop, know the equipment, and know the operator’s limits. Then use them all to their greatest capacity for a bountiful return.​

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