Do larger combines pay?

As major equipment manufacturers move from Class 8 to Class 9 combines, producers might wonder if a new set of logistics apply to these giants.

Lexion has its upgraded 590R, now rated at 516 maximum horsepower, carrying 360 bushels, with a total threshing and separation area of 8,412 sq. inches.

Case is building 523 maximum horsepower 9120 combines for spring delivery with a capacity of 350 bu. and cleaning area of 10,075 sq. inches.

John Deere is offering its 9870 combine with 514 maximum horsepower, 300 bu. tank and 15 percent bigger cleaning capacity than previous models.

Massey has its MF9895 with 459 maximum horsepower, 350 bu. tank and an unload rate of 4.5 bu. per second. The Gleaner A85 has the same basic specs as the big Massey.

New Holland will soon be in full production with its 523 maximum horsepower CR 9080, which has 10,075 sq. inches total cleaning area.

With so many new combines on the market, and prices approaching $500,000, it is a good time to look into the thought processes that five prairie farmers recently went through before making their decisions to buy the next size up combine.

  • Exactly what do I gain to justify the added expense?
  • Does a higher capacity combine fit my present harvest operation or does it force me to make additional investments?
  • Do my fields grow a heavy enough crop to keep that big threshing mechanism busy?
  • Do I save manpower, or might I be forced to find an extra truck driver?
  • Do I burn more fuel or less fuel per harvested bushel?

New Holland CR 9080at Bagot, Man.

Ken Klippenstein has his order in for a 2009 New Holland CR 9080, expected to be built sometime this winter. He views the new combine primarily as a straw management tool.

“We always grow a lot of straw around here, whether we want to or not,” jokes Klippenstein.

While the favourable growing conditions in the Bagot area may be the envy of farmers in drier regions, they come with a price tag. Heavy straw creates spring seeding problems if it isn’t properly managed in the fall. And management costs money.

“On our farm, the new combine is a matter of more power rather than more capacity. We had a 9070, which wasn’t much smaller than the new 9080, but it didn’t have the horsepower.

“We need to go later into the night. Put the header down an extra inch or two so you put more straw through, but not worry about perhaps working that straw as much.”

He says a successful harvest in his area means the operator can go through the green patches, especially on heavier ground, without cutting around them.

“Put the header down a little lower and get a good fine chop on it. It works so much better. So much more efficient. But it requires horsepower.”

Klippenstein says they had their CR 9080 field demo on a nice day, so he wasn’t able to push it and make it work the way it will in tough conditions during a typical evening on his farm.

Although he gained little relevant information from the fair weather demo, Klippenstein says the power increase prompted him to sign up to buy one.

“Power is definitely the deciding factor, no doubt about it. It’s quite a big jump over the 9070.”

Despite the power increase, Klippenstein is not expecting major things.

“We expect to go a little faster at night, keep the speed more constant.

“I don’t expect we’ll really gain many more night hours. Just do a better job in the night work and cover more acres.”

Klippenstein says when he bought the CR 9070, he upgraded his grain handling facility with bigger augers and more handling capacity. He has enough aeration that he doesn’t need to segregate the dry daytime grain from the higher moisture evening grain.

Three Lexion 590Rsin Peace River country

Leonard Tschetter traded three used Lexion 590Rs for three new 590Rs this year.

Tschetter, in charge of combines at the 16,500 acre Shady Lane Colony in the Peace River Valley, says farming in this region is nothing like farming near Calgary where the colony originated.

“We can grow excellent crops up here in Peace Country. We have plenty of rain and sun. But the harvest window is so very narrow,” says Tschetter.

“We have two to three weeks maximum, so you’ve got to have good equipment and plenty of it.”

Three years ago, the colony bought three Lexion 590R combines. They each harvested about 15,000 acres in those three seasons, but Tschetter says they saw a lot of wrench time, too.

“We were the first people into the 590s. These three were prototype machines, so we knew there were going to be glitches to work out.”

He says they worked with the dealer and the factory. Engineers from Germany and Omaha travelled to the Peace, often working side by side with Tschetter and his crew to determine the best solution for each situation.

“We had some problems with beaters and impellers, and things like shaft thickness and matching some pulleys.

“We explained these things to the engineers and then we worked together to solve things. It’s been a very good experience.”

What about performance of the three prototypes? Were the Shady Lane people happy with the machines?

“Capacity. The capacity was tremendous on those machines,” says Tschetter.

“The three prototype combines equalled six and a half of our previous combines. Our total threshing hours were cut by more than half when we got the 590s.”

The Peace River area grows more straw than farmers want or need. Winter generally brings two of three feet of snow that remains on the fields, so people don’t think in terms of cutting their stubble high for snow catch.

Because they have few rocks, the colony gets away with cutting at two or three inches. However, this means pushing a tremendous amount of heavy straw through their combines.

That’s why Tschetter says horsepower on the 590R machines is a big factor, not only in terms of harvest capacity, but also for trash management.

“Good farming always starts with straw management, whether you farm in Peace Country or down at Calgary,” says Tschetter.

“The way you spread your straw this fall, that’s what makes your next year’s crop. It takes about 150 horsepower to do a good job of chopping and spreading your straw.

“We run 36 foot straight cut headers and cut low. We spread the straw across the whole width of the header, so the extra power on these Cat combines gets put to use here.”

One thing that bogs down the Shady Lane harvest operation is its 500,000 bu. grain handling facility with a 12 inch pump.

“That’s where it bottlenecks with these three combines. For the past couple years we’ve been thinking about adding a fourth combine, but we can’t do it because we’re already bottlenecking at the grain facility with just three combines.

“It’s such a short harvest that we run 24-7 once we start. If it’s dry, we take advantage of it. Even when it gets tough, we keep going day and night. We have enough manpower to do that.”

He says when grain moisture is low enough to go directly into the bins, the system nearly plugs up. But as soon as grain needs to go through the dryer, the operation grinds down to a snail’s pace.

Combines and trucks sit idle if there’s no place to put the grain. So, to cope with damp and tough grain, they bought a 12 foot REM grain bagger. When grain is coming off at 18 to 22 percent, it goes straight into the bag for livestock feed.

“So when it’s nice and dry and sunny during the day, that grain goes to the facility. As soon as it starts getting tough, it goes into the bag.

“That’s how we keep three of these 590s running.”

John Deere 9870at Warren, Man.

Pedigreed seed grower Craig Riddell farms near Warren, Man. This year was the first harvest he’s had with his new John Deere 9870. Riddell is not convinced the move to a Class 9 combine was justified.

“As far as capacity goes, our 9760 was fine. Other than the extra horsepower on the 9870, I’m not really sold on the idea we needed a Class 9 combine.

“I wouldn’t say I necessarily went looking for a bigger combine. But we needed a better chopper and the power to run it and this was the only way to get it.”

He says reducing his tillage operation was the biggest factor in his decision to upgrade. Growing conditions in his area are conducive to heavy straw production. Attacking that problem with the combine instead of the cultivator saves time and fuel.

“On this combine, the extra power is directed strictly to straw management. That speeds up our seeding in the spring.

“We farm 3,000 acres, so we’re probably over capacity at harvest. We manage that acreage quite easily with this combine.

“But we’re pedigreed seed growers, so when harvest conditions are right, we need to go fast and get it in quick. Obviously, the bigger combine does help us do that.”

Riddell grows eight or nine different pedigreed seed crops each year. Getting those crops off in top quality is critical. He doesn’t like using custom combiners because he says their equipment isn’t clean enough. Also, he can’t always get a custom operator when needed.

His latest two combine purchases have forced upgrades in his grain handling system.

He now uses belt conveyors instead of augers. While tandem trucks in the field are adequate sometimes, he also needs to add a grain cart or an extra tandem from time to time.

“We’ve almost doubled our acres per hour since we went to the 9760 and now the 9870, so improvements in the handling system were unavoidable.”

Two Massey MF9895s at Schuler, Alta.

Arlen Schaefer and his son farm 16,000 acres along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. They recently traded in two MF9790 combines for a pair of new MF9895s.

Schaefer says big equipment is necessary in Alberta because of the manpower shortage.

“Our biggest problem in Alberta is trying to get enough people to work.”

He says if it’s a toss-up between four cheaper mid-sized machines or two big machines, it’s no contest. You have no choice but to go with the big machines.

The Schaefers’ grain handling system was already set up for high volumes of grain, including the latest 13 inch augers.

“In the field, we get it all done with just two tandems with automatics. My wife and another lady run the tandems, so it works pretty well.”

As with most farms this size, they have fields spread out over a 50 kilometre radius. And they have grain bins all over, so most tandem hauls are short.

They load combines into their super B trailers for the few 20 km hauls they have.

Schaefer says the higher capacity of the MF9895 would have little effect most years. However, the big crop in 2008 was an exception, and they were able to extract full performance from the combines.

“The 9895s have way more horsepower, so we can do a much better job of straw management,” says Schaefer. “That was really the main reason we bought them. If we have higher capacity to boot, well, that’s handy sometimes too.”

Three Case 9120s at Kamsack, Sask.

Seedbed preparation is the reason Paul Cherkas buys the biggest combines he can find.

Cherkas farms 15,000 acres near Kamsack, Sask. He recently ordered three new Case 9120 combines for 2009 delivery.

He explains that the heavy straw in his area forces him to install the best possible residue management options on his combines. Along with that comes the requirement for more horsepower.

“Horsepower handles the straw better,” says Cherkas.

“I’ve got the best choppers. It takes a lot of power to do a better job of chopping, but it pays off in the spring because then I can do a better job of seeding.”

Cherkas runs 36 foot, straight-cut headers for wheat and barley, and swaths the canola. If the barley is too heavy, he sometimes needs to put lifters on the 35 foot swathers and do the barley also.

He thinks the extra 75 horsepower he gains with the 9120 combines also reduce his fuel bill.

“If you’re pushing a smaller combine right to maximum capacity like we often do here, then you’re burning a lot of fuel.

“If you’ve got that extra 75 horsepower, then you can often back off on the throttle and cut back on fuel consumption. And that’s also easier on the engine.”

Cherkas says he typically puts about 350 hours per year on each of his three combines. Because he’s in an area that gets plenty of fall rain, he always hires custom combiners to make sure he gets the crop in the bin quickly.

“I paid out $154,000 this year for custom combines,” says Cherkas.

With that much harvest activity going on at the same time, it’s important to be set up properly in the grain yard. Cherkas has the storage capacity to handle the crop, plus two 13 inch augers so the trucks don’t sit.

“I might have to go to a bigger grain cart this year, but otherwise I’m set up to handle it.”

Cherkas leases his combines. What about the price difference between leasing a Class 8 combine and leasing a Class 9 combine?

“Well, I have to admit the price was right. On this deal, it was just $17,000 more on each combine, so it didn’t take much to figure that one out. When they said the price, I said I’d take them.”

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