Prep Your Harvest Motor Pool Now

Detailed, Preventive-Maintenance Checklists Can Reduce Costly Breakdowns

Harvest is a harsh environment. Some preharvest inspections and maintenance work can make the job go more smoothly. (Progressive Farmer image by Jim Patrico)

Nowhere else on the farm is the old saying, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," more true than in the harvest motor pool. From combines and trucks to tractors and grain carts, a successful and efficient harvest season is only as likely as the weakest link in the machinery shed.

Although most repairs can be accomplished within a few hours, any downtime during perfect harvest weather puts the crop and profits at risk from quality loss and inclement weather. The financial risks of not having made preventative maintenance inspections and repairs can far outweigh the short-term gain of ignoring potential problems with equipment.

"That's why we developed our own combine maintenance checklist and assign our crews to go over our machines before harvest," John Croft, operations manager of Seven Springs Farms, Cadiz, Kentucky, said.

The farm is a family business that includes 37,000 acres of winter wheat, corn, soybeans and barley, as well as dark-fired and burley tobacco, along with a 10,000-head feeder cattle operation. The farm's motor pool is large: 43 tractors, six sprayers, 11 combines, seven corn heads and 10 draper headers for small grains and soybeans.

"About three years ago, we felt we could significantly reduce our harvest machinery downtime if we started putting more effort into preharvest inspection and maintenance," Croft explains. The result is a 29-point list (some are multistep points) that operators use, check off and sign.

Croft said he used his many years managing the machinery-parts inventory for the farm and his own knowledge of equipment repairs to develop the list.

"We run this inspection before wheat harvest in the spring and again as we change over to corn and soybean harvest in the fall," Croft explains. "In the off season, we can usually do two to three combines per day, using two individuals per machine. We want the continuity of the checklist to remain with as few people as possible, so there's less possibility of confusion."

Tractors, grain carts, grain trucks and semitrailer rigs at Seven Springs Farms also get rigorous inspections and regular oil, filter and lubrication maintenance, according to their owner's manual recommendations.


If you have a dealer inspect your combine, either in the shop or on your farm, the process takes a technician six to eight hours to work through 150 to 200 checkpoints, depending upon the brand of harvester and the need for any repairs. In many cases, when the inspection and repairs are completed, the dealership will affix a decal or sticker to the combine as proof of preventive maintenance.

Off-season preventive maintenance and inspections generally qualify for nominal discounts on any parts needed, because they help dealers maintain their service staffs through slower periods on the farm calendar.

"We offer inspections for nearly every piece of equipment a grower will be using during harvest," said Kyle Putty, service manager for H&R Agri-Power, in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. "Tractors, grain carts, trucks and trailers are all as important as the combine, because if they fail, it causes delays that ultimately affect harvest efficiency regardless of how well the combine is running."

Putty said technicians at H&R Agri-Power's 12 Case IH stores in Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee work from detailed checklists to examine equipment. With combines, it usually takes a factory-trained technician about six hours to work through the list of nearly 180 checkpoints.

"For trucks and trailers, we use Department of Transportation inspection lists and look for everything they look for regarding highway safety," he explains. "We use a 49-point program for trucks, a 20-point list for grain carts, and the tractor program is 118 points."

Putty said the dealership offers inspections during the slower days on the farm calendar in winter, but periods following winter wheat harvest and the changeover to corn and soybean harvest are still prime times for inspections and preventative maintenance.


Cody Wornkey, service manager for P&K Equipment (John Deere), in Blackwell, Oklahoma, said while there is some inspection and maintenance demand after wheat harvest, the bulk of such work at his store is in the off season.

"Our company has nine stores in Oklahoma and 10 in Iowa, so harvest conditions vary considerably from store to store across the country," Wornkey said. "But in our shop, we usually see 40 to 50 combines from Oklahoma and Kansas during the winter, and 80% of those are from a 50-mile radius market area."

Wornkey emphasizes the need for daily visual inspections of harvest equipment in the field.

"That in-field, hands-on daily inspection is very important," he said. "The majority of downtime in the field comes from normal wear and tear, and the longevity of parts, not poor maintenance. A combine has a lot of high-wear moving parts, and that's what usually takes them out. Staying alert to possible worn parts as you service the machine each morning can go a long way to catching problems before they cause failure."

Another simple way to avoid problems is to maintain proper lubrication throughout the harvester. "As a dealer, we recommend our branded oils and greases," Wornkey said. "But operators usually have a number of ready alternatives available. We just emphasize the need to use only those lubricants which meet or exceed our company's part-specific recommendations according to API [American Petroleum Institute] categories for oils, and NLGI [National Lubricating Grease Institute] categories for greases. These are national standards by which operators can ensure the lubricants they're using meet the demands OEM engineers specified for their harvester."