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Forage harvesters – bigger, badder, better

R. David Wagner for Progressive Forage Published on 27 April 2018
Corn field

As farms seek to increase productivity, it may be time to consider upgrading your self-propelled forage harvesting machines as well.

Dairies, custom cutters and even large feedlots have seen the benefits of running larger, more efficient forage harvesters, and as a result, the industry has seen a growing interest for high-capacity choppers around 800 horsepower and higher. In fact, over the last four years, sales of new forage harvesters at or above 800 horsepower have grown steadily, and now, these high-capacity, high-powered machines make up half of all new chopper sales in North America.

The growing interest in larger choppers has been driven by several factors. First, custom cutters are bringing on more and more clients and are looking for ways to get each job done faster to service everyone in a timely manner. Second, the machines used to plant silage corn in the spring have outgrown the machines used to harvest in the fall.

Now, farms have the ability to run 24-row planters at 8 to 9 mph, while their harvesting equipment only operates a 10- or 12-row header at 4 to 5 mph. When you factor in the short window of crop readiness in the fall, it comes as no surprise that many operators now turn their attention to harvesting equipment to improve their efficiencies and profitability.

But since feed quality is just as important as ever, chopper buyers are also looking for a reliable machine that cuts well, day in and day out. For that reason, there are a couple of factors to keep in mind if you think you may soon be shopping for a newer, larger chopper.

Features to consider

Crop channel – First, you should consider the width of the crop channel components. The wider the channel is, the thinner and better controlled the crop mat will be as it travels through the components of the machine. When the crop is well-controlled throughout the channel, it will enhance your feed quality and consistency. The wider crop channel also means you can operate the chopper at maximum capacity with less risk of plugging it in tough or changing conditions.

Kernel processing – The second feature you should consider when shopping for a higher-horsepower forage harvester is the kernel processor (KP). Look for a KP that is built with a heavy-duty frame, belt drives, bearings and shafts so that you can be certain it can withstand the demanding conditions expected of a high-capacity chopper.

In-cab roll gap adjustment features are certainly nice to have as well – once you work with that option, you won’t want to go back. A processor that has achieved consistently high crop-processing scores from feed testing labs will pay for itself many times over – there is no substitute for properly chopped and processed corn silage in a ration.

As far as types of crop processors are concerned, there are several options available on the market today, and some manufacturers even offer multiple crop processor options within their own lines.

Heavy-duty conventional processors intended to process corn silage typically cut with short to medium lengths of cut in the ½- to ¾-inch range (13 to 19 centimeters). They will feature conventional hard-chromed rolls, saw-tooth grooves. This is a typical option you can expect from your preferred manufacturer.

Processors intended for shredlage will be built somewhat differently. For example, the processor may have a series of spiral grooves cut in addition to the standard teeth. As the name implies, this processor is intended to shred the crop by breaking the corn stover lengthwise into pieces as well as pulverizing the kernels, making a fluffy, shredded version of corn silage.

If you happen to require different tooth counts or groove configurations, you can also use aftermarket rolls for special crop conditions or processing needs. For example, if you are harvesting milo, whole-crop wheat or barley, you may want to consider using rolls with a large number of smaller teeth to process the small round seeds of these crops.

Human interface – And finally, you should consider the human interfaces as you research high-capacity choppers. As an operator, you need to be as comfortable as possible because of the long days (and nights) that can happen during harvest. And simple serviceability is important because the easier it is, the more likely it will get done and the more uptime the unit will have.

Comfort is king. Features like ergonomic control placement may seem like a small factor, but can make a big difference after you’ve been operating before sunrise and after sunset. You’ll also want to make sure the cab has plenty of glass so you can keep a clear view of the header, crop channel and the wagon. Driver aids can also help keep you more consistent and productive even after a long day in the seat.

These optional features can help even less experienced operators work like a seasoned veteran. You can look for onboard systems such as row guidance, GPS steering and even spout guidance in some cases. Each of these technology-based features is designed to take a lot of the work out of driving, boost output and minimize losses.

Serviceability – From the serviceability side, look to see if fill points are grouped together, determine if you might have ground-level access to check or add engine oil, and ask about automatic greasing systems. Each of these simple features can together make daily maintenance quicker and easier, enhancing the life of your machine and helping you save money.

With all that said, perhaps my most important recommendation is to take a step back and look at the big picture before you start shopping. At the end of the day, what do you need your forage harvester to do? You need to make a key feed ingredient for dairy or beef cattle. Making quality silage to feed the herd all year is something you only get a chance to do once a year, so you need to put the best quality silage in the bag or bunk that you can, and you need a reliable, efficient machine to make that job easier.  end mark

PHOTO: Corn field. Photo by Getty Images.

R. David Wagner is a forage marketing manager with New Holland.

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