Leverage insights at harvest to boost productivity next year.

During harvest, every combine operator has a front-row seat for learning how the growing season went and what can be done to make the next season better.

That’s the view of Denny Bollig, farmer and president of Dragotec USA. He says combining corn is one of his favorite things to do on the farm and uses that time to review all of the decisions that went into the cropping season as well as make plans for the next.

“I call it the Alpha and the Omega,” Bollig begins. “Just as it’s the end of the season, it’s also the beginning of the next.”

Sins of the Season

“You get to see all the ‘sins of the season’ from that cab,” Bollig says. “Farmers working through early season rains might see patterns in the field resulting from compaction – starting with differences in plant size and color across the rows from angled tillage, to between the tires from planting into wet soils.”

“The decision to work in wet soils is difficult when you’re up against the clock,” says Bollig. “You may be able to determine how much compaction may have cost in terms of yield should you have to make decisions like that in the future.”

“One can judge how the planter handled those spring conditions – good or bad,” Bollig notes, “as well as how your hybrids performed in soil types and various micro environments. What is the harvest population compared to what you planted?”

“Are you satisfied with your herbicide program? You can note pressure spots that need more attention next season,” he says. “And your pest management program is reflected in the health of the plants.”

“Once the black layer in the kernel is formed, we like to see the ear upright on the stalk which indicates a healthy plant. Better-yielding corn typically comes off plants with an upright ear. Ears that tip down early is a sign of stress during the season.”

Evaluating the corn head

Bollig says one of the more obvious evaluations operators can make during harvest is of the corn head itself.

“Sixty percent of harvest loss occurs at the corn head,” he says. “The same analysis producers give planting technologies should be applied to their corn head, too. Producers should be challenging the ways they are losing yield in terms of head angle, gathering chains, deck plates, knife rollers and trash entering the combine.

“They should ask, ‘Is this the best technology I can use to get what Mother Nature gave me this year?’”

“We know there can be a lot of plant variability at harvest,” Bollig adds. “And when you consider that a modern corn head is three times bigger and travels twice as fast as when hydraulic deck plates were introduced, there’s no way it can compensate for that variability. And for the operator, there are just too many other things going on in that cab to deal with plant variability, too, which makes a strong case for self-adjusting deck plates.”

Harvest is violent

To fairly evaluate harvest loss from the corn head, Bollig suggests checking fields prior to harvest so one can determine whether any ears on the ground are from ear drop versus ear bounce.

“Early in the season when moisture is high, ear bounce can be a problem. Today’s corn heads travel faster, knife rollers run faster, and stalks are pulled down faster. As corn dries, the violent action of the knife rollers transfers energy to the ear when it strikes the deck plates, resulting in yield loss through butt shelling.

“The action of knife rollers pulling down stalks is a violent thing,” Bollig says. “Look to see the ear retention of that hybrid – is the ear hanging on all the way to the deck plates or is it dropping off before? When you see ears dropping early, you should try to harvest all fields with that hybrid first.”

“And if you see ear bounce, you may want to consider slowing down the corn head so it handles corn more gently. Just one ear lost per 175 feet of row translates to a 1.5 bushel loss.”

“Differences in knife rollers may determine travel speed,” Bollig says. “Knife rollers that intermesh are less able to manage higher speeds because they process all material at the front end. Drago knife rollers are designed to allow stalks to move along their length and process corn more fully. They are more forgiving when it comes to speed.”

Deck plate setting

Bollig says the ideal placement for deck plates to limit that loss is right up to the stalks, “which is why we know the Drago automatic self-adjusting deck plates have a clear advantage over operator-controlled hydraulic systems.”

“Deck plates set wider allow kernel loss, while deck plates set too tight means more MOG (material other than grain) will enter the combine, causing yield loss out the back end.”

“Combines are set for a ratio of grain to MOG,” Bollig explains. “Deck plates set tighter tend to break stalks, which means more leaves and material entering the combine.”

“The cost of MOG isn’t just in yield, but in added wear of the combine itself,” he says. “If you are sending 20% more material through your combine, it’s arguable that you’re reducing the life of the machine by 20%, too.”

Finally, Bollig says that producers should assess the ability of their corn head’s gathering chains to pick up stalks – especially those that are leaning away from the corn head – to get it in position for the row unit to process it.

“If the plant isn’t pulled in before it’s cut, it falls forward and the ear is lost.”

“Again, it’s important to look for equipment technologies that can deliver more return,” Bollig says. “A corn planter is a perfect example of how differences in technology can increase yield and profit at the beginning of the season. The same is true for a corn head at the season end.”

For more insight about issues that can cause yield loss, read Top 5 factors influencing corn yield loss. Top 5 factors influencing corn yield loss