A little more speed might help, but reliability and horsepower are what custom cutters would like to see more of when it comes to their equipment.

Jon Orr, a custom harvester based in Apple Creek, Ohio, also serves as vice president of U.S. Custom Harvesters, and says that as an organization, the group has determined that labor is its absolute biggest problem.

Josh Russell, a custom harvester based in Texas, who specializes in silage, is in total agreement when talking about the challenge of finding qualified operators. As a result, he says, operations like his require big equipment, and the bigger the better.

With his 1,000 horsepower-plus Krone forage harvesters and 30 foot cutting heads, Orr is a firm believer that “there is no substitute for raw horsepower” in his type of work. He says he has all the speed he needs and has raced through “drought corn” at 15 mph. “But going that fast is no fun for anybody because the fields are usually rough, the trucks are getting their gizzards bounced around and the choppers are getting beat to death. What you really need is getting enough material going through the chopper so it cuts right.”

A good day for his operation is 3,000-3,500 tons of corn silage or 500 acres of alfalfa. He says that speed doesn’t have a lot to do with his field operations. Typically, 5 mph works best with his big choppers. His mowers’ maximum field speed is 12 mph and his merger works best at about 8 mph. “We’ve merged at 12-14 mph but our windrow quality gets ugly,” he says.  “Everything flows right and your windrow quality stays a lot better.”

Russell says, with good crop corn, 5.5 mph is about as fast as he needs to go.

“When we’re chopping grass, we’re running anywhere from 8-10 mph.”

“With a little more speed, we could probably be more efficient, but the faster you go in a lot of these fields, the more wear and tear you have on your equipment. “With a bigger chopper we could probably go faster in corn, but then you run into the problem you always run into in silage. If you go faster, do you have enough trucks? If you have enough trucks, do you have enough pack tractors or enough baggers? More speed in this business usually means there’s going to be a bottleneck somewhere.”

Russell says that bigger equipment probably wouldn’t be a significant advantage in the areas where he works. “We run 10-row heads; from wheel to wheel they’re about 9.5 feet.”

He adds that they were one of the first in the area to adapt the triple mowers. “They cut about 28.5 feet and we’ve got a merger built on the back of them so we can windrow it. I know they’re running a lot bigger stuff in other parts of the world, but you couldn’t even move that stuff around down here.

“As far as the cutting width and transport width, I think they’ve kind of maxed out on how wide you can go on some of this stuff.”

The Real Need — Reliability

Both Orr and Russell agree that, with what a big forage harvester costs, the real need is to keep them moving; reliability is their challenge to manufacturers and dealers. “All of the manufacturers are doing better in this regard,” says Orr.

At the same time, with what they’re paying for a new chopper, you better believe they’re going to demand more. “Fifteen years ago, a chopper was $325,000. Now they’re over $600,000. It probably won’t be long until we’re looking at $1 million. At these kind of prices, we can’t afford to have them sitting.”

Russell says “more reliability” is at the top of his wish list when it comes to the equipment he’s operating.  

“What I would like to see is more uptime with my equipment. And the faster we go, the harder it is on the machines. We could go up on horsepower and not really get any wider on the forage choppers, but for down here it would be kind of a waste because we’re not going to see 30 ton corn.”

As for right now, Russell says that he says the industry needs to get over the Tier 4 transition before it looks at more speed. “We just want to see that the new engines are reliable.”