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Lifelong Learning: Starting Harvest like it is a New School Year

Lifelong Learning: Starting Harvest like it is a New School Year

31 Aug 2022 Author: Erin Hightower Read time: 7 min

As a classic nerd, each fall, the beginning of school felt electrifying, trips to the office supply store spurred anticipation when I imagined the year’s classes and activities. The coming school year held equal chances for success or failure, and I could not wait to experience what the year would bring.  

I have that same feeling now as kids head back to school, and we head to the fields in anticipation of harvest. Like a new school year, harvest is the start of a new year for that field.  

Simple things such as residue management, compaction issues, and volunteering all start at the last pass of the combine. 

And a good first day of school or harvest share several similarities. From preparing to implementing good habits early, to building in a feedback loop, these steps can help not only create a good start but also produce a satisfying finish. 

Set the Tone Before Starting 

That moment when you line your pencils in a row, and label binder tabs feels very similar to when you first climb in a combine cab to set it up weeks before harvest: The machinery is recognizably aligned and in its proper place ready to go like your school supplies – a simple but dramatic effect. In agronomy, the alignment here is that each piece of necessary equipment for harvest is ready to go when you are.

First, make sure your combines are thoroughly inspected and make a list of parts likely to wear and be ready to replace them. This simple task helps to predict necessary replacements for early or mid-season so the threshing quality will not be affected. Taking stock of the health of your machine, as well as potentially keeping parts on the shelf, can mitigate hours of downtime. 

Then, to get your combine’s farm management software ready to record data:  

  1. Clean out your displays of last year's data, including the fields, by doing a factory reset in your farm management software. 
  2. Add the new fields including its names and boundaries for this year’s harvest 
  3. Pre-add your crops’ varieties to ensure you don’t have to add items in the combine cab’s displays. 

As a very painful example, I know one producer who forgot to set up the John Deere 2630 display that requires a separate step to “record” data. He did not check his sprayer data for the entire year, assuming because it was “painting” his passes in the display that his data was being correctly recorded. When it came time to send his spray records to NRCS he discovered he had zero records to print and report — a hard situation to recover.

Each field may have different sub soil issues, moisture, runoff, or nutrient management concerns that you may not even think of while in the combine. A producer’s operation simply works best when the farm is not managed as a monolith. Here are three daily steps to monitor individual field conditions:

  1. Complete standard check-ins, including clean grain and tailings in the combine.
  2. Take the time to manage your yield monitor to safeguard against inaccurate mass flows.
  3. Ensure your displays are correctly set to reduce errors that can replicate later in the farm management software.

Are you taking a second in each field to make sure that you do not need to re-adjust a combine setting somewhere? It might seem overkill, but if you happen to have a field of half cheat grass, or dry brittle residue, you might be running it over in a combine not optimized for those specific mid field conditions.

Define Success, and Metrics

“I got a 2.8!” the youth I mentor exclaimed during a meeting last June. To some this would have been nothing to celebrate but given that he started the year with a 1.8 GPA, it was a huge accomplishment for him to celebrate. Similarly, “I got 25 bushels!” Seems quite different between an irrigated and dryland field, drought versus a normal year, a dry climate (as we have here in the Columbia Basin of Washington and Oregon) versus higher moisture climates. Success means different things to different people based on their starting point. The same is true for each field during harvest. Being aware of the starting point sets reasonable expectations for the year.

To define effective metrics, create a bank with previous harvest’s data. This information could help you predict what this year might have in store. Look back to see your expectations were based on several different parameters, like growing degree days. As you climb in the combine, ask yourself: “Which previous year mimics this year the best?” Then, envision what to expect based on previous experience, and decide how to spend your time.

During those passes, manage your expectations on what the field will look like after you leave through these questions:

  • If you are a no-tiller with an interest in high residue in a drought year, are you prepared to see a bare field as you exit?
  • When it comes to success what would your tailings look like and how mulched do you want the product to look like in the end?

Success metrics can vary from year to year based on the market and weather. For example, Grain Moisture levels do not provide great insight always in the Pacific Northwest but monitoring moisture and a crop’s protein levels during a dry year can protect a producer’s bottom line. Several farmers were able to survive 2021’s drought in the Pacific Northwest because they made extra benefits on their protein, so it covered that year’s decreased yield. Marking success in each of these cases is based on logging standards, understanding the environment, and setting your farm’s future goals with vital tools.

Regularly checking the most valuable standards for you and the elevator to produce clean grain sets you up to adjust combine settings to meet agronomy needs. “Setting and forgetting” any part of the combine puts you at risk to miss agronomic opportunities.

Ask for Help and Adjust

Nothing is more soul crushing than getting a bad grade when you studied and tried your best. In harvest, this frequently happens. We have great intentions and then things just do not go as planned. In school, you would ask for a tutor for the tough subjects. During harvest, do the same.

Here are three ways to ask for help:

  • Ask your agronomist to review residue management.
  • Ask your best combine advisor to look at your settings.
  • Request help on documentation issues to help troubleshooting tactics during especially troublesome days.

On a daily basis, measure your telematics data and make large changes fast when necessary for equipment management. During a John Deere training, I learned about a producer who took the time to check his telematics and noticed one of his combines was quickly increasing its fuel consumption. After completing diagnostics, they discovered a chaff buildup on the air intake just out of sight, which decreased fuel efficiency. Monitoring these minute details can reduce input costs and downtime.

Improve the Process Yearly

“But what did you learn this year?” My mom asked her favorite question after every school year, county fair week, or after every event. However, retrospect can be as profitable as a good plan. Maybe more so. Complete post-harvest data management tasks to get ready for next year’s process.

First, clean your data. Bad data can be fixed with some creative work and help from your precision ag consultant but speed up next harvest’s prep by checking your data during the winter.

Next, use Machine Analyzer to evaluate equipment’s performance. In 2020 I consulted with a custom harvester in Oregon.  After we went through Machine Analyzer, he found a key statistic: he idled 20% longer when he was combining at one key farm due to a lack of grain trucks. He went back to that farm and negotiated more trucks to reduce his idle time or pay him double for those hours parked. The next season two more grain trucks were ready to go for the wheat harvest. 

Knowing performance issues after the fact can keep you from repeating the same mistakes, wasting resources where they do not belong, and empowers you to leverage what you’ve learned for next year. By completing these pre, mid and post-harvest action times, harvest can receive top marks from landowners or trusted advisors. 


Learn more about Precision Agriculture offerings from RDO Equipment Co., visit or contact your local RDO Equipment Co. store. See all author stories here. Email Erin at or connect with her on Twitter @RDOErinH.



Erin Hightower

Erin Hightower has been working in farm planning and agronomy for 15 years. As an Agronomist at RDO Equipment Co., she works with team members and growers in the Northwest region, focused on education and training, and conducting field trials. She is a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) and Certified USDA NRCS Nutrient Management Planner, Certified Conservation Planner, and Comprehensive Nutrient Management Planner.

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