Article Archives
Sanitation Key for Avoiding Combine Fires

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
filed under: Harvest/Storage

Did your mother always emphasize that “cleanliness is next to godliness?” If so, she obviously was referring to your personal hygiene — not that of your combine. But when it comes to preventing combine fires while harvesting sunflower, a thorough, regular cleaning should take precedence even over a heart felt prayer.

The 2009 sunflower harvest season provided a good example. It brought a higher-than-usual number of combine fires to parts of the Northern Plains growing region — particularly the central and western Dakotas. Weather was the primary ingredient, in most cases. A wet early fall was followed by a dry and abnormally warm late October and November. Many fields were harvested at seed moistures well below 10% — and sunflower stalks also were very dry.

So along with countless ‘fines’ from those high-oil seeds, there was a lot of dust from pulverized heads and stalks floating around the combine. It was a “perfect storm” of dangerous proportions — a storm that sometimes produced damaging consequences, even for the most careful of producers.

Lauren Russell discovered that the hard way. The Selby, S.D., farmer has grown sunflower for a long time and is very attuned to the importance of good combine housekeeping. “We’ve always been leery of fires,” he says. “We’re extremely tidy because of that danger.” Along with blowing off residue prior to each day’s harvesting, Russell uses a portable compressor or leaf blower to clean out dust, chaff and fines during unloading stops out in the field. Also, “before we quit at night, if we smell anything or have glowing embers, we’ll wash it down so we don’t have something taking off on us while it’s parked.” Fire extinguishers, both dry and water, are standard on-board equipment.

But such precautions still weren’t enough one afternoon during last fall’s sunflower harvest. “Glowing embers from the manifold or exhaust somehow dropped through a floor compartment beneath the engine where some wheat chaff and dust had accumulated,” Russell recounts. Though his John Deere STS 9660 had been carefully cleaned prior to heading to the field that day, “because it was a new combine for us, we didn’t realize there was an enclosed compartment under some false flooring that allowed the wheat chaff to get in,” he recalls. The fuel tank was adjacent to that space.

After the fire was discovered, the Russells put it out quickly with their on-board extinguisher. “But it had already melted through the fuel tank and some hydraulic and electric lines,” he relates. The event translated into an $18,000 repair bill — and was further complicated by his dealer needing to place him on a waiting list to get a new fuel tank. Russell eventually hired a custom harvester to bring in the rest of his sunflower crop. Then the late fall snows became too deep and the corn too wet to go after his standing corn, “so we hired a Cat combine with tracks and a grain cart with tracks to finally take the corn off this spring.”

Needless to say, during the 2010 harvest Russell plans to pay extra attention to any camouflaged compartments or ledges on his combine where dust, chaff or fines can accumulate. “We’ve had smoldering fires in the past, but nothing as severe as last year,” he reflects. “I think it was just the extreme weather conditions and extreme sunflower conditions that created the problem.” So it was, then, essentially a “perfect storm?” “I sure hope so,” Russell quips, “because I don’t want a repeat of it this year!”

Brad Bonhorst a Fort Pierre, S.D., producer and National Sunflower Association board member, strongly agrees that machine cleanliness is of paramount importance. “The biggest thing you can do to prevent fires, in my opinion, is sanitation,” Bonhorst emphasizes. “You don’t want any residue from the wheat, corn or soybean harvest in the combine, because that just provides fuel.

“And you really need to keep the weather conditions in mind,” he adds. “If you have low humidity, low moisture in the seeds, a lack of wind,” that’s going to raise the threat level.

Another NSA board member, John Swanson of Mentor, Minn., is a grower in addition to being the sunflower product manager for Croplan Genetics. “In my 40 years in sunflower, I’ve never heard of a fire [when the seeds are] above 11 or 12% moisture unless a bearing went out, or something similar,” Swanson observes. “But when you’re down in that 7-8% range, you’ll have that potential for fires.” And sometimes being prepared for that possibility isn’t good enough. Swanson says he was at a south central North Dakota farm last fall where the farmer was harvesting seeds at 7%. “They had a water truck in the field and were blowing off the combines every couple hours,” he says. But a fire broke out nonetheless, and by the time they got the water truck over to the combine, it was too late and the implement was destroyed.

Swanson says growers looking at seeds in that 7-8% range may want to consider delaying harvest until evening and nighttime hours. “If it’s below 9%, I’d really consider waiting until you get more humidity in the air,” he suggests. “And, why not get paid for the water that’s in your ’flowers?” he asks, pointing out that the grower “loses” yield by selling any seeds under the market standard of 10%.

While Lauren Russell agrees with the concept behind nighttime harvesting, he says its success will depend at least partly on wind conditions. Last fall, he tried combining ’flowers at night when the temperature had dropped to around freezing. “We found it didn’t help us much — the reason being that when we got toward dusk, the wind would go down. And the dust would just hang. There was no air movement. So when we came back on the next round, we’d drive into the dust of the previous round — and it would stick on the windshield and sides of the combine.

“So I like the theory, but that wasn’t the answer for us last year.”

Another complicating factor for some growers, Swanson adds, is Sclerotinia. “If you have [a significant amount of] Sclerotinia, there’s just more of that white dust floating around and clinging to machinery,” he notes.

The whole issue points toward the benefits of harvesting early, whenever possible, Swanson concludes. “Maximize your yields by getting out there on a timely basis,” he advises. “And consider using a desiccant to advance the harvest.”

In the final analysis, perhaps the biggest assist in minimizing combine fires this coming fall will come from Mother Nature. More “normal” harvesting conditions should allow many growers to avoid those ultra-low seed moisture levels —and thereby sharply reduce the fire risk.

But, emphasize growers and agronomists alike, that should not translate into complacency. The importance of good housekeeping and continual vigilance should never be underestimated. — Don Lilleboe
return to top of page

   More about Sunflower ►