With recent volatility in the cost of crop inputs — combined with the challenges of hiring and retaining quality farm labor — more than ever, your farm customers are looking for ways to increase productivity per man as well as the number of acres they cover per day. But no single action provides the total answer for attaining maximum profitability.

It’s all about striking the right mix of robust crop management, crop marketing and sound equipment decisions to best manage risk. On the equipment side, farmers need help from their dealers to make the best purchases for their operation.

As farm sizes have expanded in recent years, many producers have fallen behind with equipment capacity to be able to plant, spray and harvest their crops in a timely fashion. In the case of harvesting equipment, the obvious trend has been toward larger equipment that increases output per man-hour as well as reduces production costs per bushel.

To keep up with the higher capacity harvesting equipment, improvements to grain handling systems will need to be made to keep the operation balanced and running at optimum levels. This article provides suggestions for dealers to help their customers maximize their equipment investment and overall profits.

Combine Auto-Steer

Many different precision ag technologies have been introduced during the past 15 years, but few of them have been adopted more rapidly than GPS auto-steering systems. While the majority of these systems have been installed on tractors and sprayers, a growing number of combines are now being equipped with the same technology, both coming from the factory and added as an aftermarket option.

Auto-steer on a combine provides measurable performance improvements by allowing any operator to harvest a full swath from one side of the field to the other.

For example, this summer I observed a farmer cutting wheat. While talking on the cell phone with one hand, he was also holding a two-way radio mic in his other hand, and steering the combine with his elbows. While he was taking care of farm business, I have to say that my main concern centered on his operation of the combine. It was obvious that he wasn’t doing a very good job of it as his cutting width varied from about 20 feet to missing a few wheat plants with the 30-foot head at the other extreme.

From the harvested acres per day perspective, it’s important to maintain a full cutting width and autosteer helps achieve this whether the operator is paying attention or not.

However, a secondary benefit of auto-steer is that it helps optimize the cleaning and separation performance of the combine because it assures uniform crop intake.

Most combines on the market reach maximum performance — which includes acceptable grain losses and the most consistent grain sample — when the volume of harvested material remains consistent at a given level.

Therefore, if forward speed or harvesting width is changed relative to a constant crop in the field, then combine performance, grain losses and grain quality are rapidly compromised.

Wider Headers

While increased header widths installed on larger combines are definitely a step in the right direction in terms of boosting field efficiency, they must be considered along with the width of other equipment on the farm.

While it’s not currently at the top of many farmer’s minds, “controlled traffic” techniques will soon be adopted by a significant number of producers here in the U.S. As a result, header widths will need to be matched to the drill/air seeder, planter and sprayer that are being used.

For example, a 40-foot combine head will divide equally into an 80- or 120-foot sprayer and will work perfectly with a 40-foot air-seeder.

The larger header widths create other challenges that need to be considered. One involves the generally poor distribution and uniformity of residue coming from the combine. It appears that the development of the wider headers is well ahead of new spreader/chopper designs.

This is even more evident with the newer 40-, 42- and 45-foot headers on the market. New technologies in this area are desperately required, because we are approaching the limits of the equipment to distribute crop residue evenly over the width of the header.

Telematic Mapping

Some combine manufacturers in Europe are already offering customers the next step beyond auto-steer and yield mapping to help them boost their field efficiency even further.

The new technology is called telematics. It’s an innovative system that allows the farmer or farm manager to determine the relative performance of individual or multiple combine operators. For example, I visited a farmer in England last year who owned two large-capacity combines.

By utilizing telematics software, he was able to show which operator ran his combine most efficiently by measuring his production level and fuel use. The farmer used these measures of performance to provide financial incentives to the combine operators.

It’s a very simple system and involves tables and maps, similar to a yield map, to document where each combine pass was made in the field. The telematic maps illustrate where the combines stopped to unload and where they unloaded on the move.

Stopping the combine, especially to unload, is very costly. So, for combine and grain cart operators, it’s a great learning experience in how to boost field efficiency.

Many combine operators unload their combine grain bin when it’s full, rather than getting into a sequence to unload when they put the least strain on the grain cart operator, especially when multiple combines are utilized in the same field.

Grain Carts

It was only a few years ago that 800-900 bushel capacity grain carts were the largest available and most producers bought smaller ones.

Today, with 1,200-1,500 bushel carts available, many farmers are buying a 1,000-bushel capacity cart, or at least one that fills their grain truck in one dump. While the direct expense of a grain cart, plus the operator and direct costs of the tractor to pull it with, may deter some producers from purchasing one, there is no debating the increases in combine performance that a grain cart can provide.

If you calculate the hourly cost of operating a larger combine at $100 per hour — and many class 8 and 9 combines will be significantly more — and the combine stops 4 times each hour to unload, taking a total of 5 minutes between leaving the crop, unloading and starting up again, you’ve lost one-third of your capacity, or around $33 per hour.

In a season with challenging harvesting conditions, many will argue that a grain cart allows you to get your crop harvested in a more timely fashion. Also, when discussing larger grain carts with producers, don’t forget to discuss the benefits of tracks.

While these add significantly to the price (compared to a grain cart on tires), their benefits are immeasurable when it comes to minimizing soil compaction, especially in a no-till system.

The Grain Handling System

Many producers have increased their combine capacity and farm size in recent years, but failed to consider the additional burden placed on their grain storage and handling facilities.

While grain storage can be an excellent risk-management tool and a way of avoiding long lines at the grain elevator at harvest, it needs to be large enough to handle the increasing volumes of grain that many larger combines provide.

While this is almost a topic in itself, many larger growers want to unload a truck in just a couple of minutes and have the truck heading back to the field for another load. Such a system will require a dump pit large enough to hold a loaded truck and the leg capacity to move it away prior to the arrival of the next truck.

If grain drying is commonly required, this adds an additional dimension of drying capacity and grain handling.

While many of these technologies may appear to be costly in the short term, each is an investment to increase long-term efficiency of the harvesting operation. They should each be penciled out and their relative cost-to-benefit ratio’s considered. Most large and expanding producers will quickly see the benefits and add them to their shopping list for the following year.