WOODSTOCK, Ont. — A long line of round balers and tractors were met by an equally long row of farmers at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show held last week in Woodstock.
Round balers were once a fairly low-tech tool, but with automated tractor control, bale density and wrapping features, the ma-chines are becoming as advanced as any other farm machine.
Farmer Rob Smith from Ontario’s Ottawa Valley region said he needs to put up more hay in the same short periods of time and do it with less help.
“It’s not just a financial thing. It’s a not-enough-folks-around thing. I have trouble finding seasonal help on the farm at all,” said the mixed crop and livestock operator.
While not showing his hand on brand choices, he said he was mostly interested in tractor and baler combinations that could get over the field as rapidly as possible.
“I am seeing it might mean buying a new tractor to pair with (a new baler), so that (purchase) will take more planning,” he said.
At the same time, at a farm show in Nebraska, one of the round baler technology leaders demonstrated something altogether different.
Iowa’s Vermeer showed off the world’s first self-propelled round baler prototype.
Mark Core, who leads agricultural equipment operations at Vermeer, said removing the tractor from a round baler design isn’t entirely about ditching the tractor component of the pairing.
“This has more to do with efficiency,” he said in telephone interview from the Husker Harvest Days farm show.
Vermeer’s origins as a business stem from the early 1970s when Gary Vermeer created the company’s first round baler out of a need to reduce the labour required for haying. The slogan for it was, “the one man haying system.”
The Vermeer ZR5 was designed around the same theme, said Core.
A few years ago the Vermeer company put together a new engineering team to look at new ways of approaching its agricultural equipment.
Two years ago it debuted a prototype round baler that could finish and tie bales while starting the next one, allowing for non-stop, continuous baling.
The self-propelled baler was developed by the same group. The new machine would need to make forage processing more efficient and potentially make it easier for the operator, in an environment that lacks experienced operators or sees extended work hours for farmers or existing staff.
“The team brings forward things that don’t exist in the market today … this certainly didn’t,” he said.
The company first showed the prototype to a group of producers earlier in the summer to gauge their responses.
“They were very positive about it, especially after feeling what it does,” he said.
The cab is mounted with suspension tucked underneath, and high enough that operators get an unimpeded view of field and machine.
“The ride is really something. It keeps operator fatigue to a minimum,” he said.
The view from a camera under the chassis ensures that producers get a view of hay as it enters the pickup, underneath the operator. A second camera looks backward from the top of the cab, allowing producers to monitor their bales as they eject. It also allows the operator to remain facing forward rather than straining to look back or swivel a seat, or both.
The prototype is powered by a 175 horsepower Cummins engine. A hydrostatic transmission that provides continuous variable shifting keeps the machine speed divorced from the pickup and engine speed.
“This really lets a baler refine its operation, tailored for the conditions, allowing farmers to make the best bales possible in the most efficient manner,” he said. “There is some magic in the (software) that helps make all this happen.”
Due to the caster-type front wheels, the machine can turn quickly and manoeuvre in the tightest of spaces.
“We were inspired by zero-turn (lawn) mowers,” he said.
With guidance, the machine takes over, and when a bale is formed, the machine stops, ties and turns to a pre-set angle, if desired, and deposits the bale. This makes bale gathering more efficient by up to 30 percent, says the company.
With the bale set out, the machine then automatically returns to the windrow and forms the next one.
“It can be set to drop the bale, on sloping ground, so it doesn’t roll away on you as well,” said Core.
“Then just hit the go button and you are away again.”
He said producers might do this with a tractor towed baler, but it takes time and puts some stress on the operator.
While casters are great for instant turns, these do cause issues at higher speeds or in transport. However, the company has built in a transport mode that ties the two casters together for speeds of up about 50 km-h.
The machine is aimed at larger hay producers in the U.S. Midwest and Ontario and farmers in the Great Plains and Prairies.
The company suggests it will fit best for those growers who put up 5,000 or more bales a year.
With that amount of production, the baler components will wear out faster than the chassis. However, the company has built the machine so that the balers can be removed and replaced with a few connections, not unlike dropping a swather header.
Vermeer plans to have a few of the machines in the field for further testing next season with a 2019 potential release date.
Core said the continuous round baler, not yet released, is still in testing and development, citing more software work that is needed before that feat of engineering makes its way to the market.
After being shown a photo of the Vermeer baler, Smith said it might be more help than he needs.
“I like the idea. It could be a bit more capacity than I could handle, but the idea seems right on the mark,” he said.