Tips on Setting Your Combine for a High Performance Harvest

In my line of work, I get asked a lot of strange stuff, but I do think the strangest this year came a few days back, when one of my new bosses asked me to write up a “Tech Tip”.

In a few days I will start my 37th year in this John Deere store in Sterling, CO both as service tech and service manager, so I have indeed given my fair share of tech tips over the years. I would contend the best advice I ever gave anyone was to just stop now and call the guy who knows. Usually, that can save more time and grief versus doing it yourself.

I suspect, however, that isn’t what my bosses had in mind. So, what with millet harvest just around the corner, and King Corn, coming up soon, I decided to talk about combines.

Over the years, I have been asked many times: “How do I set my combine?” As I said, my standard answer is, “Call the man who knows.”  (That would be your 21st Century Equipment service professional.) But I realize that is not always convenient, and it is a skill some want to master for themselves. So, here’s my list of what to do and what look for…

Checking the multiple “machines” on your combine

First thing, determine ground speed Not all operators are comfortable running at the same speed. This depends entirely on the operator—and it has an impact on how the combine performs.

Next, remember that the machine you are setting is actually several machines in one. That’s why they call it a “combine”. It combines the job of several machines—cutting, feeding, threshing, separating, cleaning, grain handling and finally residue handling. All of this matters, because to set a combine correctly, you need to determine which “machine” isn’t operating up to par and needs adjusted. Then remember: Try to only adjust one thing at a time, so you can be sure what worked and what didn’t.

Check 1: Do a power shutdown

The best way to determine this is to do a power shutdown and get the machine in the field, full of material and running at the ground speed you have determined. Then, gently and in a hurry, at the same time: 1) pull the hydro to neutral; 2) stop the separator and the head; 3) idle down; 4) raise the head and back up about three feet; 5) and shut the engine down.

Check 2: Look in front of the machine

Is there already grain on the ground before you get there as a result of wind shatter, critter damage or disease? If it’s on the ground now, we don’t have a chance of getting it the bin—so take that into account when you’re counting kernels on the ground behind the machine.

Check 3: Look at the head

Next look where the head was just running: Do you see any head loss, cutter bar trouble, deck plate trouble, snapping roll trouble?

Check 4: Inspect the feeder house

There should not be a lot of loose grain there. You don’t want your feeding machine doing the work of your threshing machine. Check for feeder house drum problems and feeder house conveyor chain trouble.

Check 5: Look at the threshing machine

Next, get those shields off the side of the machine and look at the threshing machine. In the threshing elements and concaves (front part of the rotor) you should see grain still in its parent material—wheat in the heads, corn still on the cobs, etc.—at the very front of the machine, gradually coming off toward the last concave. There should be no grain left by the last concave.

Threshing and Separating

Check 6: Look at the separator and cleaning machine

Look next at the separator machine: All grain should be out of the rotor before the last tines and separator grates. Cobs should be fairly intact and wheat straw not over-threshed.

Now, look at the cleaning machine, chaffer, sieve and fan. Are all the fingers in the elements straight, in line and all there? No big holes? Is the fan clear of any obstruction, grain, and debris and able to reach desired speed?

Check 7: Look at the grain tank

Now, look at the grain tank sample. Is it clean, not cracked? If there are kernels on the ground, is that grain loss truly from the machine?

Determine which machine is at fault.

Remember how I mentioned a combine is several machines in one? Well, that’s important to keep in mind when dealing with issues—whether those issues pop up during setup or afterward. Here are few of the top issues I’ve come across and how to ensure your setting your machine correctly.

Issue #1: Too much grain on the ground

The top complaint is too much grain on the ground. When this happens, you’re first inclination is to adjust the chaffer, adjust the sieve, adjust the fan, all at the same time, right? NO!

If the grain is still in the head or still on the cob, I guarantee it will come off when it goes through the discharge beater and/or the straw chopper. You will certainly have grain on the ground. The problem is with the THRESHING machine. Get the grain off the parent material first; THEN, make sure your cleaning machine can do its job.

The best description I ever heard came years back from customer who told me, “You need to visualize the wheat going through that machine. Cut it, thresh it, ELEVATE it and get the grain to separate from the chaff and fall through it to the chaffer.” He told me you would almost always lose more wheat out of a machine with too little air than too much. So, remember to cut it, elevate it and drive the combine under it.

Issue #2: Grain damage

The next biggest complaint is grain damage. It must mean the combine is over threshing, right? That you need to adjust the concaves and the rotor speed, all at the same time, right? NO!

Maybe we should look at our tailings system. After all, it’s just on the machine for small grains. The only thing we should ever see in the tailings is threshed heads, wheat, millet etc. If you’re finding good, clean grain in the tailings, you’re most likely to damage it by running it through again. Get your tailings to a minimum and open the sieves. Is the grain damage only being seen at the elevator? What about your grain handling system? Augers and troughs and housings? Sharp augers, worn out troughs and tubes can—and will—grind grain.

Issue #3: Residue handling

Finally, when your combine is happy, take a look at the job you’re doing handling that residue. Do you need to run that old chopper at high speed? Do you need those stationary knives fully engaged?  If you can do a satisfactory job at a slower speed with less stationary knife engagement, you will save power… Which saves fuel…Which saves money.

Tips for setting up your S Series Combine

So, now that you know more about how to check your combine and resolve some of the top issues, let’s discuss John Deere S Series Combine settings for harvest.

Setup and adjustments

Whether you’re harvesting soybeans, corn or wheat—proper setup is important. However, your combine will need adjustments and fine tunings throughout the season, depending on crop moisture and harvest conditions.

To get started, check the feederhouse drum’s position, feed accelerator speed, chopper speed, concave clearance and separator grates. You’ll also want adjust fan speeds depending on conditions and grain quality. Take a look at our video on settings for harvesting difficult wheat.

Preparing the S-Series Combine for Difficult Wheat

When it comes to soybeans, you’ll want to check threshing speed and concave clearance. The highest percentage of gran loss is at the platform on the Cutterbar and Reel. That’s why it’s important to ensure the cutting system is ready to go. Check out our video on preparing your S Series Combine for soybeans

Preparing the S Series Combine for Soybean

5 grain quality tips

  1. Check if concaves are level (front to rear) because if not, it could cause a pinch point that increases the potential for grain damage.
  2. Be sure to calibrate and “Zero” the concave position sensor.
  3. Leave some grain in the tank instead of completely emptying it to minimize damage to the augers.
  4. Do not unload the grain tank at high idle or high engine RPM.
  5. Investigate field conditions before harvesting and adjust settings as needed.

Tips for setting up your X Series Combine

The John Deere X9 Combine delivers an average of 45% more harvesting capacity across all crops—with no sacrifice in grain quality—when compared to the S Series Combine, according to independent testing by the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI). But while you may get impressive features like a new cleaning shoe to put more grain in the tank or a wider feederhouse to handle more crop flow or an improved residue management system, many of the actual settings for harvest will be similar to the John Deere S Series Combine. One nice offering with the X Series is the Combine Advisor™ and ActiveVision™ Cameras that can help automatically maintain your combine settings though.

For more tips or help on setting your combine—whether you have an S Series or X Series—call your local 21st Century Equipment service department. We’ll send one of our experts to help get you up and running in time for harvest.

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