Plows and Pitchforks

Plows and Pitchforks
The fall harvest conjures many romantic ideals about the American family farm: the orchestra of machines gliding across the landscape without any visible conductor, the smell of fresh grease on a sandwich after its owner forgot to wipe their hands, the site of pheasants and deer exiting a field ahead of the combine. All of these things are observable by passers-by; however, at times there is a definite pecking order on the family farm at harvest and the combine operator is the leader of the pack.

The combine operator is often one of the most knowledgeable and experienced harvest helper; his or her skill determines the amount of grain that is hauled out of the field relative to the amount that is left by accident or purpose. The speed of combine operation dictates how hard the support staff has to work.

A major bottleneck exists where the grain is augured from the combine into a grain wagon, cart, truck, or semi-trailer. Then it remains in the hands of the haul operators to keep the combine in motion.


If there is trouble during the haul-unload-return section of the orchestra, the drama accompanying a combine full of grain at the end of the field decreases every minute its operator sleeps. I remember being actively involved in the hauling section of the harvest orchestra, and a well-chided skill in the elevator line was the ability to guess correctly the number of bushels in a wagon or truckload of grain. I'm not trying to be a braggart, however, I could usually guess within 10 or 15 bushels of the correct number.

The thing about guessing the number of bushels the elevator receives is based on weight, a bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds and a bushel of soybeans weighs 60 pounds. It is difficult to guess the exact weight of 500 bushels of shelled corn, because the final amount of bushels upon which farmers are paid is determined by several factors.

These include moisture content by percent, test weight (what your bushel of corn actually weighs), the amount of fines present in the load, the number of weed seeds present per sample, and the presence and type of any insects found in the sample.

Estimating the amount of bushels in a grain wagon is usually done by visual estimation of the grain by volume. This is a method also often used for determining the number of bushels of grain in bin.

According to Steve Pohl, an SDSU Extension Ag Engineer, the first thing to remember when "guessing" how many bushels of grain you have is that volume = length x width x height. The second thing to keep in mind is that one bushel of shelled grain by volume equals 1.25 cubic feet, or 1 cubic foot of shelled grain equals 0.8 bushels.

The amount of bushels in a bin full of grain that is level across the top can be calculated by taking [3.14 x diameter x diameter/ 4] x height. In this manner, a leveled pile of grain that does not reach the top of the bin can be accurately calculated. More information on this and other topics may be obtained by contacting your local SDSU Extension office.

The orchestra of movement on America's family farms during harvest season may seem romantic and old fashioned, but only because it is so well managed.

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