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User story: MF combine reaping the benefits of TLC

What does it take to keep an older combine performing year in, year out? Jane Carley finds out from a farmer with a 30-year-old Massey Ferguson.


Simon Knott puts the longevity of his combine down to barn storage and regular maintenance.

Warwickshire farmer Simon Knott has just finished his 30th harvest season with the Knott Farming Partnership’s 1986 MF860 combine harvester. But what has kept it running for so long?

Mr Knott says: “For the first 15 seasons it harvested 142 hectares of cereals but, due to retirements and changes in farming policy, the area decreased to 78ha and is now 40ha, so we cannot justify buying a new combine. But with careful attention to maintenance, the MF860 has remained reliable and enables us to continue managing our own harvest, rather than paying out for a contractor.”

For Mr Knott’s father Joe, the MF860 was the latest in a line of Massey Ferguson combines when he bought it in 1986 and he opted for a model aimed at 400-hectare (988-acre) plus workloads.

Simon and Jo Knott cut 40 hectares (100 acres) of cereals a year.

“We had a number of smaller tractors which were used to their limits and got worn out. He felt the combine was our main source of income so it made sense to have plenty of capacity. There was no demonstrator available but he sat in with another local farmer who had bought the MF860 and liked it.”


The newly-designed Case IH Axial Flow was also in the frame, as was the promised new high tech Dronningborg MF offering.


“But my father was not happy with the idea of all the technology, so he went for a proven MF machine built in Canada,” says Mr Knott.


The MF860 also promised high outputs for its time, 15-20 tonnes per hour, without compromising efficiency.


“One issue was header production had already switched to Dronningborg, so when the outfit was delivered in April 1986, no-one was sure whether the Danish 16ft header would be compatible with its Canadian base unit or even fit,” says Mr Knott.

The brown paintwork of the Dronningborg header contrasts with MF’s red livery.

“As it happened, the Freeflow header has been successful, although its shallow design meant one of the first jobs was to get a local blacksmith to fabricate an extension to prevent taller oilseed rape from climbing over it.

“The combine has performed well throughout its working life, always producing a good quality sample. Mind you, it is definitely best in dry crops and, while it goes up or downhill well, grain loss monitors give a false reading on side slopes as grain being returned for rethreshing ends up on one side of the sieves.”

Over the years the Knotts have experienced a few breakdowns, of which a snapped shaft drive to the sieve was the most serious.

“We are lucky there is a combine repair specialist, JNT Engineering, just down the road. He had a number of old combines in the yard and we were amazed to see him take a gas cutter to another old MF860 and butcher the required part from it.”

A header lift/lower switch was later salvaged from the same source using a Swiss Army knife at a crucial moment in the harvest, although Joe Knott also ordered the same part new from Massey Ferguson as a back-up.

Bearings on the rear wheels take a battering from rutted headlands and need replacing from time to time.

“There are a few recurring issues. Wheel bearings on the rear wheels get worn by headland ruts on this heavy clay land – the wheel starts to tilt and the tyre rubs against the steering rod. It is difficult to see from inside the combine – my daughter Jo spotted it last time when she was carting.”

Perhaps as a result of the ‘shotgun wedding’ between header and combine, a sleeve which covers the two connecting ends wears away at them and has to be welded up most years.

Rubber paddles are used on the front elevator rather than chains and slats, with the lowest paddle getting the most use – a couple of years ago one of these snapped. JNT welded it up ‘for the season’ and it is still going strong.

Mr Knott attributes some of the MF860’s reliable track record to meticulous servicing and maintenance.

“The diesel filter is not really large enough so it is a good idea to replace it every 250 acres and I aim to keep the fuel clean and free of dust. If the filter gets blocked it is an unpleasant job in hot weather mid-harvest.”

Simple lever operation found favour with Joe Knott when he bought the MF860.

He also checks oil levels in the gearboxes and inspects belt drives for tears or damage, and chains for tension.

Daily maintenance involves blowing out radiators with a leaf blower and attending to grease points.

“We marked them with brightly coloured paint when the combine was new so they are easy to identify.”

The MF860 is always parked under cover at night, even during harvest, and Mr Knott is careful not to get water on the chains, etc, when washing down.

“Until recently we used to finish panels with car polish. Through the winter we turn the combine over regularly to get the belts moving – we often have to move it to access the grain stores so it is not a chore. I also run the air conditioning once a month – it was designed to keep operators in hot Canadian harvest seasons cool so it is surprisingly effective.”

MF860 combine facts

  • Built in Ontario, Canada
  • The last of the high capacity Canadian-built combines before production was transferred to Dronningborg, built from 1983-1986
  • Powered by a 184hp Perkins engine
  • Standard header width was 4.88 metres, with 5.48m and 6.10m options
  • The separation system featured six straw walkers
  • Original RRP was about £35,000
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