It used to be that the primary task of a corn head was to harvest corn: separate the ear from the stalk with as little grain loss as possible.

With the advent of continuous corn, Bt hybrids and higher-yielding corn varieties, farmers’ demands on their harvest equipment is growing exponentially. Today, corn plants that are as green and tough at harvest as when they were in full bloom are replacing the skinny, brown stalks that were prevalent a decade ago.

With more than 80% of the U.S. corn crop coming from genetically modified seed and the average yields surpassing 160 bushels per acre — and in some cases approaching 300 bushels per acre — the choice of a corn head has become nearly as critical as the selection of the combine.

According to corn head manufacturers and farm equipment dealers that Farm Equipment spoke with, an increasing number of growers are asking for headers that enhance residue breakdown and minimize kernel loss without sacrificing field speed.

Many of the newer corn heads introduced in the past decade help manage the growing volume of residue by chopping or shredding the corn stalks to speed their decomposition. Other new designs were developed to handle corn ears gently, making every kernel count. At the same time, dealers are also seeing a trend toward bigger headers that are capable of cutting up to 12 or more corn rows in a single pass.

With the growing options and varying designs available, matching the right corn head to the grower’s needs can complicate the selling task of the farm equipment dealer.

Chopping Heads

One of the most significant trends that dealers have watched develop in recent years is the growing requirements for chopping corn heads. But according to the dealers that Farm Equipment spoke with, adoption of chopping corn heads is heavily dependent upon the farming region and tillage practices prevalent in the area.

Gene Gullickson of Brookings Equipment, Brookings, S.D., estimates that about 25% of corn heads his dealership sells will include a chopper. John Schneider of D&D Equipment, Chilton, Wis., says nearly all of the headers his dealership is putting in the field are of the chopping variety.

On the other hand, Mark Keim of Keim Farm Equipment, with stores in Hamburg, Iowa, and Syracuse, Neb., says it’s a hit or miss proposition in his area. “One farmer doesn’t want a chopper because it leaves stubs sticking out of the ground that can damage his equipment’s tires. The next one says he wants a chopper that leaves the stalks stringier because he can no-till easier in the spring. It’s kind of all over the place,” he says.

Schneider has been working on or selling ag machinery since 1971. He saw the changes in what farmers wanted from their corn heads begin to take shape in 2001.

He had sold a new rotary Gleaner combine but the customer didn’t want any of the corn heads that the dealership offered. He wanted something he called a “chopping head,” which Schneider says he was not familiar with at the time.

“We carried Case IH and AGCO equipment and at the time they only offered, what we called, a ‘straight’ corn head. The customer wanted a header that also chopped up the stalk and he ended up going to another dealer and buying a European product.”

To follow up on the customer’s request and to satisfy his own curiosity, Schneider contacted the dealership’s two major suppliers to inquire about chopping corn heads. He recalls that both knew what they were, but at the time they didn’t believe that it would be a “big thing for the American market,” says Schneider.

Additional customer inquiries led D&D to investigate other headers. After some investigation, D&D added Harvestec, a European designed and built corn head that combined corn harvesting with stalk chopping in a one-pass operation.

Selling a New Concept

While the dealership may have been sold on the idea of the chopping corn head, selling the concept to skeptical farmers was a huge challenge, according to Schneider, and requires the support of the manufacturer.

“Stress what it’s going to do for them, and how it’s going to make them money...” — John Schneider

To get it off the ground, Harvestec’s U.S. distributor, Bill Helm, worked with D&D to make the rollout as painless as possible. “We sold the first four units based on product literature and a written promise,” says Schneider. The agreement allowed the customer to use the header on 40 acres of corn. If they weren’t satisfied, the distributor would take the equipment back.

“It’s something we had to do to get the equipment in the field,” says Schneider.

Fortunately, the new corn heads lived up to the promise and D&D ended up selling 6 units the first year. “During that first season I went out to see how the equipment was operating and remember thinking that the farmers had run a shredder over the field after harvest because the pieces were so nice and uniform and short,” says Schneider. “One gentleman, who continues using the same original head from back in 2001, still loves it. That customer has helped me sell several of these types of corn heads because farmers want to know first-hand about other farmers’ experience. That customer has been willing to share his thoughts with others.”

At last count, the dealership had sold 75 of the chopping units since they began carrying them 9 years ago.

What’s He Thinking?

Find out what’s on a farmer’s mind when he’s looking for a new corn head should be foremost in the salesperson’s mind, according to Gullickson. He’s been in the “iron business” since 1961 and “at Brookings Equipment forever.”

While he knows his farm customers well, he says he still gets back to the basics when they’re looking for a new corn head. In addition to carrying Case IH equipment, the dealership also handles the Italian-made corn head from Cressoni.

“As well I know them, I can’t read their minds. I don’t know what they’re thinking when it comes to their plans for a year or two down the road. So, I just ask, ‘What are you thinking?’ and I listen to what they say.”

Typically, Gullickson follows with questions like, “What’s the row width of your planter?” He says he almost always knows the answer, but on the outside chance that they picked up a different one along the way, he wants to verify it. More importantly, he wants to know if they’re planning to buy a new one in the future and if they’re planning to change row widths, as some are going to narrower 22- or even 15-inch rows. He says that if they’re running GPS or a precision guide on the planter, matching the corn head to the planter isn’t as much of a concern and it used to be, but important to know.

“It used to be difficult putting a 6-row corn head on the combine if they were using an 8-row planter. Then you had to get it sized up for them,” says Gullickson.

What are Farmers Looking for in a Corn Head?

When it comes to growers’ expectations for new corn heads, managing higher volumes of residue is taking on growing importance. But manufacturers suggest that the primary job of a header is to efficiently harvest corn kernels, while performing other tasks must necessarily play a secondary role.

Farm Equipment surveyed several manufacturers about what they’re hearing from their customers about their chief needs.

“Many manufacturers are developing chopping headers to manage corn residue, but fail to produce a head built for today’s fast dry-down varieties that shell easily at the header,” says Joe Bollig of Dragotec USA. “A lot of the newer units are losing grain in the field because they are running their heads too fast and causing the ear to explode when it hits the deck plate.”

He adds that farmers are also putting a premium on equipment durability. “In one year, a growing number of farmers will put as many acres and bushels through a corn head as they did over a 5-year period in the past. They need durability and are demanding that parts are easily available.”

Mike Miller of Oxbo concurs when it comes to field recovery and header losses vs. residue management. “The broad market seems to be really wrapped up in residue management and other things. They’re more concerned with the corn stalk, when they need to concentrate on the ear.”

He says Oxbo is using the same technology they’ve used for sweet corn and applying it to harvesting field corn. “Our customers — farmers, custom harvesters, contract seed harvesters, seed growers and fresh market food processors — want a corn head that handles their high value crops gently, and recovers more of the crop. They also want a corn head that is dependable, operates efficiently, and one that doesn’t slow the combine by putting excess residue through it,” says Miller.

Gene Colburn of Calmer Corn Heads says that per-acre yield is at the top of most growers’ needs, but residue management is also moving up on their priority list.

“The feed corn guys are pushing higher seed populations to improve yields. They’re telling us the genetics are there to get 250-plus bushel per acre yields, but they know they’re not going to get it by putting 40,000- 45,000 plants in a 30-inch row,” Colburn says. “That’s why we’re seeing more interest in 20- and even 15-inch rows.

“It’s no longer a fluke. We have growers coming to our seminars that have been on narrow rows for 20 years and wonder why more corn farmers aren’t doing it.”

Dave Clarke, Clarke Machine, adds that corn stalk processing at the corn head is the major trend in the newest corn headers. Equipment choices to accomplish this, he says, includes flute stalk rollers, knife stalk rollers and chopping heads. “All have their place depending on the farming practices related to tillage style and timelines.”

But, he adds, dealers need to remind their customers that if chopped stalk residue is not tilled into the soils soon after harvest, wind and rain can “drift” stalk residue into drainage ditches, fence lines and road right of ways. “Knife rollers usually do not drop corn stalk pieces on the ground, causing the corn stalk drift problems of the chopping heads,” Clarke says.

Sized Right

While most farmers come in with an idea of what they want, the salesman needs to be careful not to oversize the header. “The trouble with getting larger is you need support equipment to handle it. You need the facilities to dry it and to haul it. And, if you get too big, your combine is sitting waiting for everything else to catch up to it.”

In at least one instance, he says, one of his customers went back to an 8-row head after using a 12-row unit.

If the customer wants an 8-row header but the combine is marginal for that large of a corn head, Gullickson says it’s a good idea to probe to determine how long the customer plans to keep the combine.

“If they’re going to update the combine in a year or two, then I’ll talk to them about buying a header that’s ‘marginal,’ in that they may have to go through the field a little slower and get by until they’re ready for a new combine. Eventually I’ll work them into a little bigger machine, then they’ll already have a corn head that will fit.”

To Chop or Not

Once he’s confident that the customer has the correctly sized header for his operation, he determines if they need a chopper or conventional corn head. He adds that if a farmer is specifically looking for chopping corn head, there’s a list of advantages and disadvantages that the salesperson needs to cover with him.

“We’re getting more requests for choppers all of the time,” Gullickson says. But several factors are holding chopping heads back from even wider adoption. “They’re considerably more expensive and heavier than a conventional corn head. So, it’ll take more power and the grower will probably give up a 1-1.5 mph of field speed when they’re using a chopper. It’ll also take another gallon of fuel per hour.”

Gullickson estimates that a combine with an 8-row head is capable of harvesting corn at about 5-6 mph. Adding a chopper will reduce the combine’s speed to about 4 mph. But he adds, “Most farmers like the end result.”

On the other hand, his no-till customer, in large part, have stuck with a conventional corn head because they don’t like the “residue mat” that choppers can leave. “With a conventional head, they still have some standing corn stalks and can plant their beans in it.”

“In one case, a customer went back to an 8-row head after using a 12-row model...” — Gene Gullickson

Another variable that comes into play, according to Gullickson, is the corn variety, itself. “Different varieties will harvest differently. I’ve known customers to give up certain varieties because of the conditions it leaves behind the combine.”

Before trying to close on the purchase, Gullickson says that he runs through the other features and options — adjustable stripper plates, poly dividers, etc. Of the myriad options available, he says that farmers seem to really like automatic header height control where sensors allow the corn head to follow the contour of the ground at a constant but adjustable height.

“This is particularly nice to have, especially on the wider heads and in downed corn,” he says.

Regardless of your pitch, Gullickson says the end result is how a new header is going to pay for itself by getting as much corn out of the field in a timely fashion. He expects to sell about 8 new corn heads this year.

Personalized Service

For Gene Colburn of Calmer Corn Heads, every sale is personal and comeswith customized service. The Alpha, Ill.-based company builds around 15 customized corn heads a year and only sells direct. Both Colburn and Marion Calmer, the company’s owner, are avid no-till farmers, and as such they bring their farming expertise to every sale, says Colburn. “Our sales efforts focus on sharing good information and our own experience as corn farmers,” Colburn says.

Dealer Takeaways

• Verify the particulars of the customer's existing equipment (e.g., planter row width, combine horsepower, etc.) to properly size the corn head.

• Discuss the farmer's future plans for the equipment, how long does he plan to keep his current planter and combine and is he anticipating any significant changes.

• Use your website as a source of information on harvesting practices and not just a catalog of equipment and parts. It helps establish the dealership's credibility and expertise.

• The designs and capabilities of corn heads are changing frequently. Make sure the sales staff is up to date on new features and options and how they'll make money for the farmer.

As proponents of narrow-row corn, they also focus on this specific niche. “The standard row width for corn is still 30 inch, but we’re seeing growing interest in 15- and 20-inch corn. We’ve built some 30 inch heads, but our bread and butter are the 15s and 20s. In some years, 75% of what we sell is 15-inch headers and the next it’ll be 20-inch models,” Colburn says. “This year we’re looking at about a 50/50 mix.”

“There are enough of these units out there now that farmers can measure the results, so it makes selling a little easier. The one thing every farmer is looking for is the most bushels out of every acre they can get. So we believe that you’ll see interest in narrow-row growing.”

Being a small manufacturer of specialized corn heads, Calmer relies heavily on exhibiting at farm shows (they’ll be at 8 more this year) and its web site to get the word out. “We don’t have a lot of heads out in the country, so our web is big for us,” Colburn says.

“We get a lot of calls from farmers who are thinking about going to narrow-row corn because they’ve either seen our web site or they’ve heard Marion Calmer speak at a conference and word gets around. We’re farmers, too. So we’re putting good information out there that we know farmers need and that’s helping to build our reputation,” Colburn says.

And, as a farmer looking for new equipment, he prefers to speak with others who have used the equipment. “I’ll go through my whole sales spiel, but I rely on our new customers talking to somebody that’s running one of our corn heads. They’re our best salesmen. Their testimonies will go a lot farther than me cramming all the good stuff down your throat.”

Selling Durability

Keim of Keim Farm Equipment sees the same trends developing with corn head sizes, row widths and chopping heads, but the major benefits he’s selling is durability along with less shelling and ear loss.

“Most farmers have the equipment pretty much scoped out before they come in to buy a new corn head or they like what their neighbor has,” he says. “Our job is to demonstrate features of the equipment and show them why they’ll get more corn in the tank at the end of the day.”

The dealership handles Case IH and Dragotec corn heads, and the Italian-made Dragotec easily outsells his major’s brand, he says, because of the heavy-duty components used in the design and the spring-loaded deck plates vs. hydraulic used on most others. “We sell about 20 corn heads a year and in the last 3 years they’ve pretty much all been the Dragos,” Keim says.

He says his customers get 7,000 to 8,000 acres in before a major chain or knife work is required on the Dragotec heads as opposed to 4,000-4,500 acres on most of the others when the farmer is ready to trade them in.

“Last year, of the 20 Dragos we sold, we only had to write up warranty reports on three of them. That’s all most of our farmers need to hear,” Keim says.

He adds that spring-loaded deck plates are constantly adjusting on the go and that facilitates gentler handling, which results in less shelling and ear loss. “You also get your smaller ears, too, and it’s going into the corn head instead of on the ground.”

Closing the Deal

Dealers report that with the wide range of corn head sizes and options available, these units can range anywhere from $32,000 to nearly $150,000. “Sometimes my biggest job is to help them get over sticker shock,” says Schneider of D&D Equipment.

“That’s why you need to really stress what the equipment is going to do for them, and how it’s going to make them money. They understand all of the benefits — fewer trips across the field, better residue management, more corn in the tank. Selling the product isn’t all that hard if you know it well and communicate,” Schneider says.

But in the end, the toughest job may be how to make a payment acceptable to the customer. “I spend at least 50% of my time on financing. And when it’s something like a corn head, something they don’t buy too often, you better have made a strong case long before you talk price. And then when you get to the price, you better have answers about terms and financing.”