Machinery Chatter

Steve Is Our Mechanical Pro

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Steve Thompson may be the only Ph.D. to write an advice column for farmers with balky machinery. We think he's also the best. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

Steve Thompson has for a good many years been the Ask The Mechanic columnist for The Progressive Farmer. It is a popular and an award-winning column. Steve connects well with readers in their day-to-day realities of operating machinery in the hostile environment that is farming.

Steve's columns come with dirt on them -- he digs deep into the grubby, mechanical side of machinery. He writes about oil and grease, fuel lines and gaskets. Help a reader run down an electrical short? Tell them how to fix the baler the neighbor broke? Those questions are in his zone and highly popular among Ask the Mechanic readers.

He has an easy and oftentimes humorous writing style. "Grab an adjusting tool (hammer) and whack it," he suggested in one column. He walks readers through their mechanical issues one step at a time, often by way of a stream of back-and-forth emails. In fact, we've named an occasional feature within Ask the Mechanic, "Steve's Back and Forth." It's a feature that follows the course of a repair as Steve and the reader work through it.

This "mechanic" has an interesting background. Steve earned his Ph.D. in secondary education from Texas A&M University-Commerce, in Commerce, Texas. He runs a 1,500-acre operation that produces cattle and hay. Steve says he's baled more than 1 million square bales. Round balers, he allows, have made life much easier.

During a nine-month school year, he is a full-time English professor at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. He also ran the John Deere technical program at Navarro for 10 years. He has done a stint as a contract trainer for John Deere. His specialty is haying equipment.

When I called him Monday morning, he was working on a hay baler -- a subject he recently covered in a feature he wrote about round baler maintenance. "I'm making money both ways," he jokes -- making money by making hay, and making money by writing about balers not making hay.

Here's how you can contact Steve: Steve Thompson, Ask The Mechanic, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email him at

If you haven't read Steve's work, here's a column he wrote on small tractor maintenance.

A reader recently asked me for small-tractor recommendations. He said he wanted one that will last 20 years. Today's tractors will do that . . . if you treat them right. Here's how:

-- Engine Oil. This is one of the easiest, but most vital, maintenance routines. Oil in your engine does all of these things: It reduces friction between moving parts, absorbs and dissipates heat, seals the piston rings and cylinder walls, cleans and flushes moving parts, and helps deaden the noise of the engine. But oil wears out. This is why you have to change it according to the manufacturer's recommendations, or at least once a year.

-- Air Filter. Your engine uses many times more air than fuel, and all of the air it uses ends up in the cylinder. Dirty air can "dust" an engine in just a few minutes under severe conditions. On older tractors, the air filter will be of the oil-bath type; it will be of the dry cartridge type on newer tractors. The oil-bath filter has a container on the bottom filled to the mark with motor oil. When the engine starts, vacuum from the engine pulls some of the oil up into the screen portion of the filter. As the air passes by the oil, the oil catches the dirt in the air. When you stop the engine, the dirty oil drips down to the container, and the dirt settles to the bottom. Clean the container as dirt reaches about 1/2 inch deep.

-- Cooling System. Servicing the cooling system is easy. First, remove the radiator cap -- only when the coolant temperature is below the boiling point. Next, open the radiator drain cock and drain the coolant. Note: If the engine has an oil cooler, remove the oil-cooler drain plug and drain the coolant. As soon as the system is empty, close the radiator drain cock and install the oil-cooler drain plug.

Then, fill the system with coolant specified by the owner's manual and install the radiator cap.

-- Hydraulic System. Although your hydraulic system requires less frequent maintenance than most systems on a tractor, it still is important to maintain. Check your owner's manual for the recommended intervals for your tractor. Start the engine and operate hydraulic functions to heat hydraulic oil. Place tractor on level ground and shut off the engine. Lower lift links to empty lift cylinder(s). Remove drain plug, drain oil and replace hydraulic filter. (Some filters are of the spin-on type; others are of the canister type.) Install drain plug and fill system.

-- Diesel-Fuel Filter. Before tackling this, read your owner's manual and check with a mechanic familiar with your tractor make and model. One word of caution: Air can get into the fuel system when changing fuel filters. This sometimes makes an engine hard to start.

-- Engine Cleaning. Using a power washer to clean your engine can help you detect leaks, prepare your engine for repairs, and actually allow your engine to run cooler. Never clean a hot engine with water.

-- Radiator Cleaning. A power washer (with engine cool) works great for cleaning these areas. But always keep the power washer's tip 2 to 3 feet from the fins of the coolers. Bending of the fins could reduce heat dissipation.

-- Electrical System Maintenance. Never add acid to a used battery. Keep battery cables clean. Make sure cable connections are clean and tight. Check tractor-wiring harnesses for broken wires or places where wire insulation might be rubbing.



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