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Editor’s Column: How to optimize your cost of harvest

Editor’s Column: How to optimize your cost of harvest

Why is grain loss at harvest such a big deal? Even one bushel of excess canola loss per acre could mean a hit of $15,000 per 1,000 acres, says Joel McDonald, who farms near Kyle, Sask.

Managing your grain harvest losses is particularly important when commodity prices are high, and given this past challenging growing season, “it’s maybe not more important, but it’s more significant when your yields are low,” he adds.

McDonald’s expertise comes from his background as an agricultural engineer and a project leader from 2010 to 2019 for the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute. He says it was during an internship at MacDon with the product support team in 2008, when he travelled throughout the United States and Australia doing tasks such as product support, training, warranty audits, etc., that he developed a passion for harvesting. In 2019, he returned to farming full time.

He stresses the numbers associated with losses at harvest are significant. During his presentation at Ag in Motion (AIM) in July, McDonald ran through some figures. With canola prices at $15 per bushel, for example, and a combine harvesting speed of 3.5 miles per hour and a 40-foot header, 17 acres per hour was harvested. With one bushel of canola per acre of excess loss (excess loss meaning one bushel per acre more than you are comfortable with) that works out to $255 per hour, $3,060 per 12-hour day or $15,000 per 1,000 acres in lost revenue.

Table 1. Joel McDonald created an easy-to-use table for farmers to help them calculate their total cost of harvest optimization. This table was provided to farmers during Ag in Motion in July. photo: File

If the scenario is two bushels of canola per acre of excess loss that’s $510 per hour, $6,120 per 12-hour day or $30,000 per 1,000 acres in lost revenue.

Losses like this can happen with all crops and with any combine, and it’s possible to lose up to five bushels per acre, says McDonald. “All combines can do it (lose that many bushels per acre) if they’re adjusted poorly, if you’re way overdriving their capacity, or if there’s a malfunction or a mechanical breakdown in the combine. It is possible — I guarantee it.”

Knowing your grain losses in bushels per acre is an important component to determine your total cost of harvest and, in turn, your optimized total cost of harvest.

In an effort to help farmers calculate the total cost of harvest under different scenarios, which helps determine your optimized total cost of harvest, McDonald offered a new, easy-to-use table. This information was part of his AIM presentation called “Finding the Sweet Spot Between Harvest Productivity and Profitability.”

One of his key messages is your cost of harvest is your combining cost plus your grain loss cost, and by entering different variables into the table McDonald provided, you can determine your optimized cost of harvest.

For example, what’s the best speed at which to run your combine (in terms of optimized cost of harvest)? Or what adjustments can you make to your combine settings, such as fan speed, to get the best cost per acre when harvesting? Or perhaps you may want to compare the cost of harvest of combine A with combine B (and even C) on your farm.

With a few measurements, some data from your yield monitor and some easy calculations, you’ll know exactly what your cost of harvest is for each crop in dollars per acre.

If you can’t sketch it, you can’t adjust it, says McDonald about the crop flow through a combine. This screenshot was taken from his AIM presentation this past July.

For example, for canola, to calculate what speed you should be going to optimize your cost of harvest, first calculate what your combine costs you in dollars per hour. In this example, the combine cost is $330 per hour — your cost could be different from this. In fact, all of your measurements and data will be specific to your farm and your machinery.

Next, when you are in the field, measure your grain loss with a loss pan at differing speeds. For example, at 2.0, 3.8 and 4.5 miles per hour, grain losses (determined with a loss pan for each combine speed) were 0.8, 0.8 and 1.5 bushels per acre, respectively.

Also, record your harvest rate in acres per hour from your yield monitor. In this example, at 2.0, 3.8 and 4.5 miles per hour, harvest rates were 9.7, 18.4 and 21.8 acres per hour, respectively. You will also need the commodity’s grain price. For this example, the grain price is $15 per bushel.

As you can see from McDonald’s Total Cost of Harvest table, the optimized cost of harvest is not at the greatest speed of 4.5 miles per hour, but at 3.8 miles per hour with a total harvest cost of $30 per acre.

This table and the formulas used in it work for any crop and can be used to optimize other factors such as combine settings. It might be useful to you to understand how different fan speeds affect the total cost of harvest — you can optimize your fan speeds without the guesswork.

Although it’s critical to check for combine grain losses at harvest, says McDonald, even he understands how hard that can be during crunch time. His answer to that challenge is to make the process as easy as possible to measure those grain losses, such as using a remote-controlled magnetic drop pan. “It might take 10 or 15 minutes, and it sounds like a lot, but think about the numbers I was talking about earlier, it can make a huge difference in dollars — so it’s worth it. Investing $2,000 or $3,000 into a magnetic drop pan will pay for itself.”

When should farmers check for loss? McDonald says check every combine in every crop, every year — and do it more if there is a change in harvesting conditions.

During his presentation, McDonald also provided some harvesting tips and tricks. One tip he offered is how important it is to know the inside of your combine and its components and how the crop flows through it. “If you can’t sketch it out on paper — how that crop flows through your combine and where the airflow goes — you can’t adjust it.”

For farmers looking for this information, most manufacturers have posted YouTube videos of how the crop flows through their combines.

The Total Cost of Harvest table for farmers is only a small segment of McDonald’s AIM presentation. In addition to specifics on combine loss curves, he provides lots of scenarios of optimizing harvest costs, or finding the sweet spot between harvest productivity and profitability, and the outcomes may surprise you. This presentation is interesting and informative and could be well worth forty-five minutes of your time. It is free to farmers and is available at until the end of the year.

Please reach out to me if you put this table to the test. I would love to see and publish your cost of harvest optimization results. You can reach me at [email protected].

Have a happy, safe and productive autumn,
— Kari

About the author


Kari Belanger

Kari Belanger has been a writer and editor since graduating from the University of Calgary with a B.Sc. in Biology and a BA in English Literature in 1996. For more than twenty years, she has worked in many different industries and media, including newspapers and trade publications. For the past decade she has worked exclusively in the agriculture industry, leading a number of publications as editor. Kari has a particular passion for grower-focused publications and a deep respect for Canadian farmers and the work they do. Her keen interest in agronomy and love of writing have led to her long-term commitment to support, strengthen and participate in the industry.



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