Great Seedsmen Know Their Plants

- Dave Means

Great seedsmanship demands a lot from those who practice it. It demands an intimate familiarity with one’s plant. It demands knowledge and experience to design an equipment line capable of filtering product as efficiently as possible. And it demands creativity. When I host an Oliver training session, or I visit a plant to troubleshoot inefficiencies, I ask for one thing from my audiences and one thing only: to listen with an open mind.

I remember a plant I worked in. Everyday I’d walk in, talk with the shift foreman, and listen to the sounds coming from the entanglement of machines around us. On one particular day, he said, “We’ve got a cup ticking.” And sure as you-know-it, we followed the sound and discovered a leg where a cup was loose. It sat there, ticking against the guarding. It hadn’t hurt anything at the time. But if we’d ignored it and figured that it wasn’t bothering anything, eventually it’d rip right off. It’d get bailed up and we’d be left with a ton of down time. This could have easily been the squall of an auger, growl of a bearing, or belt noise.

When you are in a plant and trying to find the source of a problem, you have to listen to your machines. The plant will talk to you if you are willing to listen. It’ll give you the big picture — it always does. But it is up to you to hear it.

We as seedsmen and as operators have to look at that big picture, and to neglect to do so is to sell ourselves short. I believe a plant works for us, the seedsmen. We are not working for it. But in that regard, a production plant is only capable of doing the work that we allow it to do. If we aren’t getting the separation expected from a machine, then that machine is either malfunctioning, not being applied correctly, or something else within the production line is not in harmony with the rest of the plant. Only after identifying the true source of a problem within the plant system can we then begin to correct it.

I’ve learned that an Oliver gravity table — and really any machine — has its own tells, like that ticking cup. If you pay attention, you can tell if you’re pushing your eccentric speed too far, or if you’re getting too extreme with your side tilt, or whatever the case may be. This requires a lot of skill, patience and practice on manual machines. Just the physical act of cranking an air adjustment, moving the side tilt, recording the positions, and then repeating that process until you finally get the separation that you need can be real time consuming.

Considering that, automation can take us a long way. Why are there less manual transmission cars on the roads these days? That’s too much work. People don’t want to drive them. It’s the same thing with machines.

We make machines that are highly automated because they’re efficient. In my opinion, the best part about automation isn’t that it makes your job easier. It’s that it makes the newest generation of the workforce more inclined to use it. Because it produces results more reliably while consuming less time and energy. And when we succeed, the efficiency of the entire plant improves. But I want to stress that more efficient tools do not negate the seedsman’s need to be in tune with their facility.