2020 Harvest Season

Safety precautions to take during 2020 harvest season.

As fall approaches, farmers begin preparing for the busy harvest season ahead.  Every harvest season has its own set of unique challenges and the 2020 harvest season will be no exception to that rule.  Common concerns that seem to occur each year include: Will we have favorable weather?  Will the grain moisture be too wet, or too dry?  Will there be adequate supplies of dryer fuel, storage space, and available labor?  On top of this, farmers will be conducting the 2020 harvest in the midst of a pandemic, with drought conditions spreading across the Midwest and with millions of acres of wind damaged crops.

There are three tools that farmers can use to prepare for the busy season ahead; planning, preparation, and patience.  Develop a plan for the normal bottlenecks that you face every year and also plan for the unexpected and unforeseen events.  Preparation includes preseason tune-ups on all harvesting equipment, storage and grain handling facilities.  Most important of all is patience.  We know there will be long hours in the field.  The combination of fatigue and frustration can lead to deadly accidents.  This article will focus on the two main challenges for the 2020 harvest: harvesting in drought conditions and harvesting wind damaged crops.

The planning phase sets the stage for a successful harvest.  Dry field conditions increase the risk of combine fires and wildfires in your fields.  If you are harvesting in drought conditions, additional preparations are needed to reduce the risk of fire.  Decisions must be made on whether severely wind damaged fields can even be harvested at all.  Plan for additional grain storage if your bins have been damaged.  Develop a plan for handling the wide variations in grain quality that will be coming out of the fields this fall.

As harvest nears, most farmers have completed their preseason checks on the harvesting equipment and grain storage facilities.  The combine headers and harvesters will be challenged by downed crops.  Proper adjustments on the headers, stalk rolls, and gathering chains will be critical when working in downed crops.  Make sure that all machine guards are in place and safety interlock switches are operating.  Ensure that you have adequate lighting on farm equipment, including turn signals, flashing lights, reflectors, and slow-moving vehicle signs.  For large combine heads, always use the header cart when traveling on the roadway, even for those short hops field to field.  Do not rely on a motorist, who might be distracted, to react in time to oversized and slow-moving equipment.

Harvesting downed crops requires combine headers to operate close to the ground.  Dirt, rocks, and crop residue will cause additional wear and tear on equipment. This will require increased attention to maintenance, lubrication, and adjustment.  Excessive foreign material in your harvested grain will lead to uneven ventilation in the storage bins and will impact your grain quality management plan.  If you plan on harvesting downed crops, prepare for this by running the grain through a grain cleaner prior to placing the grain into storage.  The impact of the August 10th wind storm has left many farmers searching for additional grain storage options.  Placing moist grain into temporary storage without drying and without proper ventilation is a recipe for disaster.  Grain spoilage may start within as few as ten days, when 18% to 20% moisture corn is placed into storage while the grain is still warm.  If you intend to store grain for any length of time, you must have the ability to dry grain down to safe levels and provide for adequate ventilation.

Harvesting in drought conditions presents its own unique challenges.  Dry fields and high winds can turn a small ember into a raging wildfire that can spread for miles.  Combine fires are difficult, if not impossible, to extinguish.  Daily cleaning and inspection of the harvesting equipment is critical.  In extremely dirty conditions, it may be necessary to clean the combine several times a day.  Clean thoroughly in and around hot engine components and exhaust systems.  Inspect for fuel and oil leaks, bearings starting to fail, and belt and chain alignments.

A custom harvester shared these additional best practice ideas:

  • Never harvest alone.  The combine operator is focused on the header operation and may not see the small fire developing behind them.  A second combine, or the grain cart operator can help spot developing problems. 
  • Always have a fully charged fire extinguisher available. On extremely dry and windy days, this operator recommends taking a water tank to the field as an additional resource. 

The final tool, and possibly the most important, is patience.  Long hours lead to operator fatigue.  Add in the stress caused by equipment breakdowns, long lines at the elevator, and difficult harvest conditions, we begin to understand why people take short cuts with safety.  Remember, safety is something to practice even when no one is looking!  There is no task so important that it’s worth lowering your safety standards.  Farm equipment is fast, aggressive, and powerful.  Farm accidents are horrific, tragic, and all too often fatal. 

If you are harvesting downed corn this fall, you will likely experience a plugged header.  Farmers have been known to bypass the safety interlocks of the combine, leaving the header running as they attempt to clear the choke.  The gathering chains and the stalk rolls on a corn head are designed to grab the corn stalk and pull it down, separating the ear from the stalk.  If a farmer tries to unclog the header with the machine running, they risk being pulled into the machine.  These types of incidents can result in an amputation of one or both arms.  Studies show that it takes a typical adult approximately 2/10th of a second to react.  In the time that it takes a farmer to realize that they are caught in the machine, the corn head will already have pulled them in about 3 feet.

Avoid working alone.  If you must work alone, make this a year where family and friends make the extra effort to check in on harvest operations more frequently. Spouses, families, and employees need to have frequent safety meetings, reminding each other to avoid taking that shortcut, to maintain all guards and shields in their proper place, and to always maintain adequate communication.  At Nationwide, it’s our mission to protect people, business, and futures with extraordinary care.  This fall, we ask farmers to conduct their harvest with the same extraordinary care.