Joel McDonald of the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute 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: Getting harvest lost right is a delicate balancing act, but will help producers stay profitable.
Finding the right balance between harvest loss and efficiency is a challenge — but one every grower should tackle, McDonald said in a presentation at Combine College here in March.
And those who aren’t measuring harvest loss may be losing far more than they think, he said.
“The key is to pay attention to it.”
Think bushels, not acres
Producers should be thinking in terms of bushels harvested per hour rather than acres covered because that automatically adds harvest loss back into the equation.
His institute has found that losses increase after a combine hits about three miles per hour (although tweaking combine settings can keep them from skyrocketing) and header losses go up “substantially” above four miles an hour. Shoe losses, likewise, also jump once machinery tops two to three miles per hour, and rotor losses increase as feeding rates go up.
But 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. An “acceptable loss” will change with the weather and will likely be different on the first day of harvest versus the time crunch at the end.
Producers may want to run the numbers on what they lose 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.
‘Make it easy’
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.”
Producers may also want to develop a cheat sheet, or write quick reference information directly on the pan, rather than pulling out the calculator while in the field to convert loss into bushels per acre, he said.
A wide range of harvest loss tools has hit the market, including ones built 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, a Saskatchewan company that reconditions and sells combines and other farm equipment.
“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 the more advanced systems, but will give some idea of what is being left in the field, he added.
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, said Sheri Dale, another Combine World sales rep.
“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?
However, there is little reason to measure bushels lost per acre to three decimal points, said McDonald.
“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 one-tenth of a bushel per acre is unlikely to be significant, 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 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, has 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.