Like many industries, agriculture relies heavily on physical assets, including machinery, mobile equipment, and buildings. It’s important to keep everything running properly in order to avoid delays in vital agricultural processes. Seeding, harvesting, and other processes are bound to strict timelines, and the equipment used to carry them out needs to be ready for operation on time. As such, maintenance plays a vital role in keeping farms going year after year.
How Maintenance Plays a Role in Agriculture
Both planned and unplanned maintenance play a vital role in keeping a farm operational. These two maintenance types help farmers keep to the strict timeframes prevalent in the industry, while also preserving safety.
Importance of Agricultural Maintenance
The role of maintenance in agriculture is to ensure farm equipment operates when it’s needed. Machines used in agricultural processes must be ready for operation on time—otherwise, there could be significant losses to the farm as a whole.
In addition, facilities meant to process and store foodstuffs must be kept safe, clean, and structurally sound in order to guarantee that the farm’s product is safe for consumption.
Specifically, agricultural maintenance fulfills these purposes:
- Preventing breakdowns and accidents
- Keeping planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and so forth on schedule
- Maintaining the quality of end products by calibrating thermometers, metal detectors, sensors, etc.
Types of Assets Maintained in Agriculture
Farms run on heavy equipment, much of which is maintained by farmers themselves. In addition, most farms have buildings that need to be kept clean and sound. Among the assets farmers need to maintain are:
- Seed drills
- Manure spreaders
- Irrigation systems
- Conveyor systems
- Fume washers
- Refrigeration/temperature control systems
Of course, this is far from a comprehensive list. The types of assets that need to be kept up depend on the farm’s size and level of specialization.
Who Performs Agricultural Maintenance?
Often, farmers themselves are the ones who maintain their equipment, which means they need a wide breadth of knowledge about their machines, how the machines work, and how often the machines need to be maintained. In small family-owned farms, all the maintenance may be performed by a single person (though often with help from family members), whereas larger operations will have multiple hands on deck.
Agriculture involves a lot of unskilled labor, and as such, farmers often have very little formal training when it comes to maintaining farming assets. Thus, accidents and injuries may occur as a result of poor maintenance practices.
Common Preventive Maintenance Checks for Equipment Maintenance and Calibration
Farming equipment can be either mobile (tractors, harvesters, and plows) or fixed in place (conveyor belts, mixers, pasteurizers). Regardless, each piece of equipment needs to be checked on a regular basis to make sure it operates reliably.
Note that the timelines suggested below are only suggestions. The exact frequency with which you’ll need to perform routine checks on your equipment depends on its level of usage, weather conditions, applications, etc.
Checking and Changing Fluids
The fluids used in equipment need to be checked to make sure they’re clean and safe to use. Every so often, these fluids should be changed out as well, like when they begin deteriorating or accumulating contaminants.
Some of the fluids farmers need to check on include:
- Engine oil (daily)
- Transmission fluid (daily)
- Coolants (annually)
- Hydraulic fluid (every couple of years)
Lubricating Moving Parts
Lubrication is a vital aspect of keeping farming equipment running efficiently and reliably. Typically, any moving parts on your equipment will need greasing on a periodic basis. Lubrication time frames vary for each piece of equipment, your general climate conditions―for instance, extremely wet conditions can drastically reduce lubrication intervals―and the level of usage it sees.
Often, the operator’s manual for each piece of equipment will give rough guidelines on lubrication and other preventive maintenance tasks. Those timelines can give you a baseline to work with as you get started with your preventive maintenance plan.
Checking and Changing Filters
To keep machines operating efficiently, various filters are used to clean contaminants out of fluids, such as fuel and lubricants. Oil filters are typically changed whenever you switch out the oil—roughly once every 100 hours, depending on usage.
Air filters, on the other hand, will vary significantly based on usage. They’ll need to be replaced as often as they get clogged, which can range from every several hours to once a month. The key is to check on them regularly (at least every day) and then make a preventive maintenance plan based on your findings.
Anything that rotates, whether it’s the wheels on a tractor or the rollers on a conveyor belt, relies on ball bearings to keep moving smoothly. Bearings wear out over time, so if you hear grinding or your rotating equipment starts overheating, they’ll likely need to be replaced.
Routine checkups are recommended for bearing maintenance, as is regular lubrication. The time intervals for bearing checks depend on your equipment and hours of usage, how well you manage its lubrication, and your surrounding climate. Your operator’s manual should give you a recommended timeframe to get started.
Thermometers, thermostats, metal detectors, scales, and other food safety instrumentation should be kept properly calibrated at all times. If the calibration is off, it can lead to safety and health issues, such as:
- Errors in mixing preservatives
- Inadequate temperature control for certain products
- Introduction of foreign objects into foodstuffs
Calibration intervals should follow the guidance provided by your operator’s manual for each piece of equipment.
Parts wear out over time. On a routine basis, check your equipment for the following:
- Loose tension and cracks on belts and chains
- Strange noises or odors
- Leaks in hoses, fuel/oil lines, cylinders, and hydraulic lines
- Pitting, breakage, and other signs of wear in equipment
- Loose or broken pins and bolts
If you find anything amiss, get it repaired as promptly as possible.
Before winter every year, it’s important to make sure your equipment is ready for the colder months, which often involves long-term storage for certain machines. Some of the winterizing tasks farmers typically need to perform include:
- Changing out diesel fuels from #2 to #1
- Either disconnecting batteries or keeping them charged throughout the season
- Cleaning heavy equipment
- Draining and cleaning pesticide application equipment
- Checking antifreeze and hydraulic fluids, and changing them out if necessary
- Draining the diesel exhaust fluid tank (if needed)
- Oil equipment for storage
- Making any outstanding repairs
- Performing other routine preventive maintenance tasks
If you’ll be using equipment over the course of the winter, make sure it’s ready to continue operation in the cold, especially if you’re in an area with high levels of snowfall and sub-zero temperatures.
Other Routine Upkeep
Vehicles and moving equipment all need their own routine upkeep, and those tasks are often simple and straightforward. For instance, vehicles may need spark plugs and batteries changed out every so often.
Cleaning is another important task that should be carried out on a regular basis. Simple cleanup tasks can be done daily, while more thorough scouring is often handled weekly or monthly.
Common Preventive Maintenance Tasks for Farm Buildings
In addition to equipment, farms also involve fixed assets like buildings and land. Keeping facilities safe and in proper working order is a vital part of agricultural maintenance.
Walls and Surfaces
Often, the structures in farming applications are used either for storing or for processing foods. In either case, the walls and surfaces need to be nontoxic and nonabsorbent to make sure food products are safe. For example, no lead-based paints should be used. If there are any cracks or breakages, those should be patched up in order to facilitate regular sanitation.
Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are major components of any building. For buildings where food products are processed or stored, it’s important to make sure the facilities are kept at the right temperature and that any dust, vapors, or fumes are properly siphoned out of the building.
Semiannual checks are generally recommended for most climate control systems, though some components like air filters should be changed out much more frequently.
Floors should promote drainage, for example, by sloping toward drains and by being nonabsorbent. This is especially important in areas where fluids (milk or water) are handled. Damaged floors should be repaired as quickly as possible, and other drainage systems, such as downspouts, should be kept clean and in good working order.
In outdoor areas, gutters and downspouts should be kept clear of debris in order to make sure water drains properly. Doing so prevents flooding and structural damage.
Every component of a building should be structurally sound, free of mold and water damage, and in overall good condition. Roof trusses, truss plates, and bracing components should be repaired or replaced if they exhibit any signs of damage. Clean any rust away, and add reinforcement to areas that seem like they may need it.
Most building maintenance involves making sure all lights are in working order. However, in agriculture and food processing, it’s even more important since broken bulbs could pose a serious health hazard. Ensure all bulbs are either shatterproof or otherwise shielded. Doing so keeps broken debris from contaminating foodstuffs.
Naturally, any time a light goes out, replace it with the appropriate bulb in order to preserve safe lighting conditions.
Other regular property upkeep should be handled on a consistent basis. Some items may be performed daily, while others are done on a less frequent basis. A number of these regular building upkeep tasks include:
- Mowing, pulling weeds, and general landscaping
- Snow removal during the winter months
- General cleaning and janitorial work
- Trash removal
In the course of performing regular building upkeep, make sure all repairs are handled in a way that keeps foodstuffs safe from contamination or spoiling. More specific information on building maintenance can be found here.
How to Perform Agricultural Maintenance Safely
As important as it is for farms to perform regular maintenance, it's equally important to make sure the maintenance is handled safely. One of the main causes of injury on a farm is machinery maintenance, ranking in frequency alongside fieldwork and animal care. The following pointers can help make sure maintenance work on your farm is performed as safely as possible.
Read the Owner’s Manual
In order to safely repair equipment, it’s highly recommended that you read the owner’s manuals for your machines. Doing so not only gives information on which parts are needed and how often to perform routine maintenance tasks, but also informs you of the hazards present when working on your equipment. PDFs of user manuals can be stored in a CMMS to help make that information more accessible during maintenance.
Shut Down and Secure Equipment Before Servicing
Before working on any machine or vehicle, make sure it’s completely shut down first. Not only should all switches be in their “off” position, but any power running to the machine should also be disconnected (wherever applicable). Doing so will prevent the machine from suddenly powering on while under maintenance, thus lowering the risk of injury. In fact, OSHA estimates these types of procedures to prevent upwards of 50,000 injuries and 120 deaths per year.
It helps to have preplanned lockout-tagout (LOTO) procedures in place for each piece of equipment. Make sure each person you have working on your farm is aware of these procedures and follows them whenever repairing or maintaining equipment.
Use Adequate PPE
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is vital to making sure maintenance work is carried out safely. Gloves and hard hats are advised when working on most mechanical and structural repairs, and special equipment should be used when working at height (fall prevention equipment) or in confined areas with fumes (respirators).
Utilize the Correct Tools
Poorly designed or inadequate tools pose an ergonomic hazard to those working on farm equipment. In some cases, the right tool for the job may not be available due to financial constraints, or it may simply be out of easy reach, leading farmers and farmhands to substitute something else.
Using the wrong tool for the job can lead to repetitive stress injuries, or it can directly result in a severe injury by causing an accident. These injuries can be prevented by making sure the required tools are made readily available in advance for each maintenance task.
Add Signage at Hazardous Areas
Hazards, such as heights, fragile floors, areas with fumes or excess dust particles, and the like should be clearly marked. Doing so can help farm workers exercise caution and potentially prevent injuries, such as broken bones from falls or respiratory diseases from inhaling fumes.
Any signage should be clear and easily recognizable. Color coding signs can help make them easier to recognize. For instance, red and yellow often mark hazards, so using those colors can improve clarity.
Farms often use hazardous substances, such as pesticides or cleaning chemicals. When cleaning or maintaining pieces of equipment that have come in contact with these substances, it’s important to take thorough precautions to prevent cross-contamination with food products or other chemicals.
When cleaning surfaces and machines that are in frequent contact with foodstuffs, make sure any cleaning chemicals are completely removed before they’re put back into use. The use of disposable gloves can also help prevent cross-contamination from one cleaning project to the next.
Most farmers are self-taught when it comes to maintenance work, and they therefore lack any formal training on proper safety protocols. Getting some training in agricultural maintenance can help reduce the risk of injuries by providing information about best maintenance practices. A bit of investment now could prevent serious injuries later on.
Plan Maintenance Tasks in Advance
Advance planning for maintenance tasks can help prevent accidents by blocking out a specific time for the task to occur—such as when machinery isn’t in use—and by making sure you have the right tools on hand. Planned maintenance also helps reduce the incidence of unplanned maintenance tasks that may result from a machine breaking down.
Maintenance plays a vital role in agriculture by keeping equipment in reliable, running shape. With sound planning and safety practices, farmers can carry out maintenance tasks on their equipment and buildings with minimal risk to their safety.