Joel McDonald of the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI) has seen the full spectrum of techniques for minimizing harvest loss.
He has seen lead-footed farmers blaze through their acreage, but leave a substantial part of the harvest behind. He has also seen farmers crawl their combine at a mile and a half per hour to avoid losing a kernel, and end up as the last in their area still in the field.
Why it matters: Poor combine settings or speed might be leaving a lot of money in the field, but the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute says farmers won’t know how much until they put some effort into measuring harvest loss.
But while the ideal balance behind harvest loss and efficiency might be a challenge, McDonald argues that it’s one tightrope that every farmer should be deliberate when walking.
Farmers who are not measuring harvest loss may be losing far more than they think for the sake of a few minutes of attention and some basic prevention, he said during a recent appearance at a Combine College in Brandon March 20.
“The key is to pay attention to it,” McDonald said.
Think bushels, not acres
He said producers should be thinking in terms of bushels harvested per hour rather than acres covered, which will automatically add harvest loss back into the equation.
PAMI has found that losses increase after a combine hits about three miles per hour — although tweaking combine settings can keep them from skyrocketing — and that header losses jump “substantially” above four miles an hour. Shoe losses, likewise, jump once machinery tops two to three miles per hour, and rotor losses increase as feeding rates jump.
McDonald isn’t arguing that all farmers should slow down. He is the first to admit that the ideal balance between harvest loss and speed is a moving target. Different farmers will have different tolerances for loss, but that will also change through the season or even through a day. Urgency will win out over harvest loss for most farmers if bad weather looms, and “acceptable loss” may be different on the first day of harvest versus the time crunch at the end.
Producers may want to run the numbers between what a farmer loses in quality due to rain versus increased harvest when the combine speeds up, he added.
“If you’re covering lots of acres or your commodity is highly valuable, maybe just bombing through that last 20 acres just to get it done might not be the best economic decision,” he said.
Tricks of the trade
Combine College attendees heard that small steps in preparation can go a long way in making loss monitoring easy.
“If it’s a difficult, not fun process, you’re not going to be inclined to do it, right?” McDonald said. “So make it easy… find a loss pan or a catch method that works for you, whether that be one of the purchased ones or building something in your own shop that gets the job done that you’re comfortable with.”
After non-grain material is cleaned out of the pan, producers can calculate their bushels lost per acre.
Producers may also want to invest time in developing a cheat sheet, or write quick reference information directly on the pan, rather than pulling out the calculator to convert loss into bushels per acre in the field, he suggested.
Worth the investment?
A wide range of harvest loss tools has hit the market, including manufacturer efforts to build tools into combines.
Add-on options can range from thousands of dollars for some drop-pan systems, or can be as simple as “throwing a trash can lid” under the combine, said Cole Fraser of Combine World.
“In terms of an initial dollar investment, it depends what you want to do,” he said of the commercially available options. “If you’re doing the drop-pan system, it’s anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 right there. If you’re doing a yield system, it could be $2,000 to $6,000.”
The “trash can lid” method won’t give scientific results like more advanced systems, he added, but he said even that will give some idea of what is being left in the field.
Fraser highlights harvest loss when optimizing older machines. The parts dealer pointed to add-ons such as a Seed Saver, a shield running along the top of a pickup header that blocks material from flinging out and piling up on top of the header casing — or a canola catcher, a screen or plexiglass panel that also looks to keep grain in the combine.
“Despite the investment, no matter what you do with that stuff, it almost always pays off sooner rather than later,” Fraser said.
Many customers are largely unaware of their options to reduce harvest loss, another Combine World sales representative, Sheri Dale, said.
“We don’t care if you buy it from us, just do it, because it’s going to help you,” she said.
How accurate is too accurate?
McDonald said there is little reason to measure bushels lost per acre to three decimal points.
“We know that the accuracy isn’t that precise and we also know that it’s not necessary to be that precise,” he said. “Bushels per acre to one decimal place is more than enough.”
Even then, moving up or down a tenth of a bushel per acre is unlikely to significantly affect a crop, he said.
McDonald said he worries more about the range of loss.
“I’m really more looking at the macro of, are we near one bushel per acre or are we far beyond our comfort zone — two, three, four, that sort of thing,” he said.
Farmers don’t need to measure harvest loss every day, but they should check at every new crop or after any weather event that would substantially change harvest conditions, he said.
Automatically adjusting settings, often pitched as a time saver, have potential, McDonald added, but he cautioned farmers to measure loss periodically anyway to verify those settings.
More than anything, he urged producers to go by the numbers rather than gut feelings. Many decisions are made by intuition rather than the hard data, he said, and that’s something that might well end up costing money.