Check your corn head now for optimum harvest performance this fall.

These simple maintenance tips can help capture more yield and extend the life of your corn head. “With today’s farm economy, trading for a new corn head every other year to avoid a breakdown is hardly an option,” says Iowa farmer and Dragotec USA president Denny Bollig. “And while the combine once was the primary focus for fall service, producers understand the importance of maintaining the corn head, too. “More than 60% of the corn lost during harvest occurs at the corn head,” he says. “Proper maintenance of the corn head not only can extend its life but help to reduce harvest loss.” Bollig points out that harvest conditions have a great impact on maintenance needs. “Downed corn, for example, forces placement of the head closer to the ground, bringing in more dirt, debris and stones,” he says. “This means your in-season maintenance just went up – including everything from lubrication to cleaning – to keep your corn head running at peak performance.” Those conditions, Bollig says, suggest the importance of good header height control, such as Headsight® Terrahawk radar height control, a non-contact height sensor.

Deck plate calibration

Key components, including deck plates, knife rollers and gearboxes should be routinely inspected through the harvest season. “Deck plate alignment is critical to getting more yield acre after acre,” he says. “Over time, debris, linkage wear and field obstacles can cause hydraulic deck plate gaps to deviate among row units from the original factory-set calibration.” He notes that university research* has shown that as little as one-eighth of an inch deck plate misalignment between rows can result in a one to four bushel per acre loss. “It’s essential to check for gap consistency between deck plates at least once a year – and during the season if possible – to ensure there are no major discrepancies among corn head row units,” Bollig says. “Failure to do so could lead to unnecessary yield loss.” He points out that Drago corn heads with automatic self-adjusting deck plates don’t require calibration and provide more self-cleaning action from constant movement.

Inspect knife rollers

Harvesting high-yielding corn requires consistent feeding action at the knife rollers. Although this may seem like an obvious maintenance checkpoint, Bollig says farmers often overlook knife roller wear and spacing, which can cost yield. “Worn knife rollers can create stalk slippage during pull-down and require higher speeds to process plant material,” says Bollig. “And a consequence of a higher knife roller speed is an increase in yield loss via butt shelling and ear loss.” He adds that most knife roller designs have a short window to fully process stalks. Inefficient stalk processing means stalks can bunch up. “Farmers naturally compensate for this by increasing roller speed, but in doing so, are create additional wear in a concentrated area at the front of knife rollers.” Overlooking knife roller maintenance – or having to change knife rollers during the harvest season – can add significant time and cost on top of yield reductions. It’s important to be proactive and not try and press your luck going into harvest.

Evaluate drive system components

Other maintenance trouble spots include corn head drive system components. Inevitably, as chains, sprockets and gears wear, drive system components lose efficiency. Producers must use their discretion when weighing the cost of repairs versus replacement. “When making a decision about part replacements, ask yourself, ‘What is it going to cost me?’ without just thinking about the cost of the part itself,” Bollig advises. “Consider the job it will do and if it will last the season.” In addition to examining the drive system for signs of wear, producers should also check both the level and condition of grease or gear oil in each row unit gearbox. “Gearboxes are at the heart of any corn head and their wear can be a great indicator of its longevity,” says Bollig. “Producers might consider replacing their corn head when major drive components, including row unit gearboxes, begin to fail or when there is excessive backlash movement of rotating shafts and sprockets.”

Other maintenance considerations

Referencing the operator’s manual is always a good way for producers to bring themselves back up to speed on the proper maintenance of their corn head. Other routine corn head care procedures include:

  • Maintaining normal or severe service lubrication schedules to help avoid breakdowns.

  • Blowing the row units off under the bonnets to keep all parts moving freely.

  • Cleaning gathering chain tensioners regularly. Proper tension adds life to chains and sprockets.

“Good management and good maintenance go hand in hand,” says Bollig. “And while factors such as build quality, weather and corn-on-corn practices can also affect the lifespan of a corn head, it won’t last unless properly maintained.” He notes that more than ever, producers are looking at how corn heads are built for durability when making purchase decisions. “Design features like Drago’s spiral-cut bevel gearboxes, chainless drives and longer knife rollers play a role in how a corn head performs and can help extend the life of the head.” “The way we educate producers about the design of their corn head helps them make better maintenance decisions and become a more informed end user,” says Bollig.

Parts availability

“We are realistic and know corn harvest is a violent activity and parts are bound to wear out. And when that happens, we know the importance of parts availability. Our ‘No Back-Order or it’s Free Guarantee’ is a commitment to our customers about making parts available to service and support Drago corn heads,” Bollig says. “And the really great thing is we’ve never had to honor that guarantee – parts availability has never been a problem.”

Now is the time to evaluate the condition of your corn head, including the cost to maintain its harvest-ready performance, and the potential cost of yield loss due to worn parts or potential harvest breakdown.

*Graeme Quick, Iowa State University

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