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Improving harvester set-up an ongoing conversation

Darkan grower Ray Harrington says harvest losses in his canola are now almost non-existent, since changing the settings in his Case harvester.
Photo: Jo Fulwood

Growers’ desire to improve harvest efficiency has propelled the success of half-day harvester set-up forums across Australia.

More than 600 growers attended the forums in 2021, despite the hurdles created by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the northern and southern regions, all forums featured video hook-ups as well as industry experts on the ground.

The forums provided information and discussion around preventable harvester losses, improvements in efficiency and output, calibrating harvester technology, reducing the risk of harvester fires and methods of harvest weed seed control. They also demonstrated how harvest losses can be accurately measured and the sites of losses identified.

The 2021 forums were held in Dalby, Clermont, Mungindi, Spring Ridge and Collie in the northern region; Goomalling, Morawa, Darkan, Kondinin and Ongerup in the western region; and Kooloonong, Diggora, Narraport/Birchip and Kaniva in the southern region.

Calibrate for Australian conditions

The chief executive of project lead organisation Primary Sales, Peter Broley, says harvesters are generally calibrated for overseas conditions – not Australian – so growers can leave a lot of money in the paddock if they do not set their machines up properly.

“People want to know what they can do to improve their bottom line,” he says. “The overall intention of the forums is to put growers in a position where they are able to make proactive decisions to improve their profitability, starting at the front of the harvester and working to the back, while also thinking about things like weed seed control.

“Growers get the opportunity at the forums to ask questions specific to their crops, their harvester and their program, with feedback coming from experts as well as from their peers. There is a continual learning that takes into account different seasons, new machinery and technology, and changes in crops. For example, this year (2021-22), there will be a high level of biomass and a lot of moisture – so people will be asking what they have to do to account for that.”

Mr Broley says feedback from growers indicates that many acknowledge the need to obtain more data during harvest. “We had one grower joking about his father previously giving his hat a quick waft behind the harvester to see the grain on the ground. I think there’s general understanding that we have moved past that, and measurement of losses needs to be accurate to help growers put more grain in their bin.”

Of the three areas of grain loss (environmental losses prior to harvest, machinery losses at the front of the harvester, and sieve and rotor losses out the back), more needs to be known about “out the front” losses, he says. “That (front loss) is currently not measured adequately. We need more data on what a reasonable level of loss out the front is and what growers can do mechanically to impact front loss.”

High prices meant there was an emphasis on canola harvest losses at the 2021 workshops, he says. “People are very interested in canola because of the high current price and small seed making it easy to underestimate losses, but they also recognise that there is more money to be made in pulses – as well as in cereals by minimising harvest losses.”

Broadly, the industry standard for acceptable harvest losses is less than two per cent for canola, less than one per cent for cereals and less than 0.5 per cent for pulses.

Getting information from people who truly know how to set the machines up ... is really important when you want to get your losses under control.

Victorian Wimmera-Mallee and Werrimull region grower Mitchell Henderson attended a forum at Birchip in October, and says it was a valuable opportunity to hear from experts as well as to network with other growers – especially after a long period of not being able to do so because of COVID-19. Presenters at the Birchip forum spoke on topics including grain loss, harvest weed seed control and harvester fire management.

Mitchell, who grows wheat, barley, field peas, lentils and canola across two properties, says he was keen to ensure he was setting his headers up correctly, particularly since he relies on casual labour during harvest.

“We put Seed Terminators on two of our machines this year, so I wanted to make sure I had the information and contacts on hand to ensure we set the headers up as best we can to get the best result – with minimum losses,” he says.

“Getting information from people who truly know how to set the machines up – people who have done their homework and have the experience – is really important when you want to get your losses under control.”

Mitchell estimates his usual grain harvest losses at between one and two per cent. He previously used the monitoring equipment on his John Deere headers (an application called GoHarvest) to measure losses, but recently bought a Bushel Plus drop tray system because “seeing the dollars per hectare that can be saved by setting up correctly is a good incentive to make sure things are running well”.

High prices an incentive

He agrees that high grain prices are an added incentive to minimise harvest losses. “The economics might favour going faster in some years, but this year the trade-off of losses versus efficiency will be weighted more towards (minimising) losses. The dynamics have shifted a bit.

“I will definitely be keeping a closer eye on losses. Using the drop tray system, I will be able to work out whether it is coming from the front of the header or machine losses. We might also change a few things with how our threshing elements are set up, which was discussed at the forum – getting the concaves right, which can boost productivity through needing less horsepower for threshing the grain.

“Those kinds of things can make a difference, so we aim to fine-tune a few of those as a result of attending the forum.”

He recommends the forums to any growers who want to improve their productivity. “Things are evolving all the time, and people are learning new things, so attending these types of things is another tool in the toolbox. Moving forward, I think there will be big participation because people will be keen to do real-world instead of online workshops.”

Central western NSW dryland grower Richie Quigley, who also attended a 2021 forum, says he got what he wanted out of the day, which was to increase his knowledge of harvesters and to work on finding an equilibrium between maximising harvest productivity and minimising grain losses.

You can potentially recoup the cost of a contract harvester if you improve your harvester set-up.

Richie, who grows mostly wheat, canola and chickpeas near Trangie and estimates his harvest losses between 0.5 and two per cent, says minimising harvest losses is a “never-ending conversation”, and he gained some ideas from the forum that he will put into practice during the 2021-22 harvest.

“I definitely picked up some things we can try this year that will help us,” he says. “We will be looking at the fundamental set-up of our harvesters: checking that rotors are level and centre to the concave; checking calibration of rotors, concaves and sieves; also basic maintenance of the front – checking that the knives cutting well. We also spoke about moving the pinch point on a Case harvester, which I will consider trying this year and hadn’t thought of before.”

Richie is planning to buy a drop tray system for the current harvest to help with calibrating harvesters. “You can’t manage what you are not measuring. You can potentially recoup the cost of a contract harvester if you improve your harvester set-up.”

Presenters at the forum spoke about the principles of acceptable losses and the relationship between losses and productivity, he says. “You always want your losses as low as you can get them, but there is a cost there in terms of productivity, so there is a balance that needs to be sought after.”

Thinking outside the box

Darkan, Western Australia, grower Ray Harrington attended a 2020 harvester forum as part of his ongoing mission to reduce harvest grain losses to less than one per cent.

All it took was some “thinking outside the box” to adjust the internal workings of a rotary harvester to work more like a conventional harvester, he says, and grain losses on the Harringtons’ farm became almost non-existent.

Ray was inspired by the thinking of presenter Brett Asphar, from Seed Terminator, on the adjustments needed to reduce losses, particularly in Case harvesters. “What Brett said about rearranging the concave and changing the threshing pressure made a lot of sense to me, so I followed up with him after the presentation to get further instruction,” Ray says.

Brett eventually visited Ray on-farm and adjusted the concave, moving and enabling multi-bar pinch points, which stopped product being thrown to the right on the separation area and allowed for a longer, lighter threshing and separation process. “In hindsight, it was common sense, but I needed Brett to work it out in the beginning,” Ray says.

“We have really noticed the difference, particularly in canola,” he says. “We no longer get those awful hardworking sounds coming from the machine. Any process that is softer and smoother when it comes to the combination of steel and fuel is better for business, in my opinion.”

Pingelly, WA, grower Chelsea Hassell attended a harvester forum in Cuballing in September 2020. She says she discovered new ways to accurately measure preventable grain losses from the harvester.

“Initially, I didn’t think I would get much value from the forum because we generally bale the straw from windrows behind the harvester for sheep feed, so I didn’t know how we could accurately measure our grain losses,” Chelsea says. “But it was excellent to go along and talk to other growers and see how they had set up their systems.”

After attending the forum, Chelsea convinced her father John of the need to accurately measure losses with a drop tray system. In her early measurements using the drop tray system, canola grain losses were about 10 per cent. “We went about the harvester set-up changes in a step-by-step way, so we could see at each stage what the impact on the losses would be,” she says. “We changed three things, which in the end brought the canola losses right down to just one per cent.”

The forums in 2021 featured presentations and discussions by industry specialists including Dr Michael Walsh (University of Sydney), Martin Peters (Farming IT ), Adrian Roles (JMAJ Precision), Kassie van der Westhuizen (John Deere, Goldacres), Peter Newman (Planfarm), Nick McKenna (Planfarm), Ben White (Kondinin Group), Peter Broley (Primary Sales), Rod Gribble (Australian Custom Harvesters), Marney Strahan (Redekop), Keagan Jefferies (Seed Terminator ) and Brett Asphar (Seed Terminator), as well as local facilitators Paul McIntosh, Tom Draffen, Jo Wier, Peter McKenzie and Andrew Freeth.

More information: Peter Broley, 0458 458 053,

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