With a 2,000-hectare-plus workload, one Oxfordshire farmer expects full capacity from frontline kit. And the farm’s combine, a Claas Lexion 780TT, is no exception.
From the 2,023-hectare Manor Road Farm, Wantage, Ben Smith faces a constant challenge with logistics and efficiency. The temptation to double up on key implements to achieve even greater output is never far from his mind.
But it is a scenario that is not likely to materialise in a hurry, having ditched two combines for one larger model back in 2006.
“With nearly 5,000 acres under our belt, our combine, sprayer, cultivator and drill are working pretty much to full capacity,” says Mr Smith. “There are very few times when one single machine is not quite enough. And that makes doubling up on kit an expensive option.”
Logistics has been given a boost in recent years with a change of sprayer. The farm relies on just one high capacity trailed machine - a Chafer Sentry 6,000-litre model with 40-metre boom.
With liquid fertiliser to apply too, it is fair to say the sprayer earns its crust by covering about 26,000ha each season. Now into its fourth year of service, the sprayer has almost completed an impressive 100,000ha workload.
Going from 32m up to a 40m boom gave the farm a useful boost in capacity and created an opportunity to extend tramline widths too.
“Going to 40m was easy to achieve with our then 8m drill,” he says. “But in terms of practicality, I think we have now reached the maximum boom width for our fields.”
Those fields total just 60ha, and with an average field size of 28ha the farm gets some long straight runs.
“Our largest field measures 135ha and our smallest is just 2ha,” he adds.
With spraying logistics covered, Mr Smith turned his attention to boosting harvesting output.
For the last eight years, combining has been the domain of one high-capacity machine - in this instance, a Lexion 780TT with a 1200 Vario header offering almost 12m of cutting width. It replaced a Lexion 600TT in 2013, also with a 12m header, and provided a useful hike in output.
But an opportunity to put a 13.5m V1350 header on the combine for the 2013 harvest was to plant a seed for controlled traffic farming with Mr Smith and his team.
“I soon figured three ultra-wide header widths would give us a 40.5m overall working width, which would sit just within our 40m tramline system,” he says.
“I suddenly had the key pieces of the puzzle to move into controlled traffic farming and a plan was formed to introduce a system during the 2014 harvest.
“We bought a second-hand Simba Horsch CO12 cultivator drill, and over winter, we modified the frame in the farm workshop,” he says.
The drill was thoroughly overhauled and its original 12m working width was increased to 13.5m. New seed distribution heads were installed, along with additional coulters and seed delivery pipework.
And the team remained confident that the farm’s Challenger MT865 would have enough muscle to easily handle the wider outfit.
A 15m Claydon straw harrow has joined the fleet too, and with direct drilling on the agenda for some crop types, he says the switch to controlled traffic farming should offer useful long-term benefits with yield improvements and establishment cost reduction.
Permanent tramline positions were installed with the sprayer during the 2013 season, allowing the drill and combine to share almost identical wheelings. And all kit can access a full RTK signal across the farm, enabling repeatable accuracy year-on-year.
“When it comes to combine output, there is no doubt we are up against it,” he explains. “I don’t plan my rotation to favour the combine, so the pressure is almost certainly on when it comes to harvest. And if I could have a larger, more productive combine than the 780, I would.”
He says output can be as impressive as 60ha/day, but the overall average when it comes to an honest and perhaps realistic output that takes into account late morning starts, combine moves and other unforeseen issues, is a solid average of around 60 tonnes/hour.
The 780TT it may be recalled, has 10-12% more output potential than the 770, thanks to a more powerful engine, a larger capacity grain tank and its clever automatic combine adjustment system – Cemos Automatic.
Cemos Automatic is the next phase of harvester controls. Instead of making recommendations to the operator on how best to maintain output as harvesting conditions change, with Cemos Automatic the combine is constantly altering, adjusting and monitoring its settings to maintain output.
Linked with Cruise Pilot II, Cemos Automatic tweaks forward speed in addition to separation and cleaning elements to maintain a desired level of losses that have been predetermined and entered into the control system by the operator.
“If I changed my rotation and grew 200ha of winter barley and perhaps 400-500ha of oilseed rape, it would spread the harvest workload,” says Mr Smith.
“But I tend to favour a straightforward rotation that brings in the yield and the returns we require.”
However, black grass incidence has meant the farm has recently included an area of spring barley in the rotation to help clean seedbeds. Doing so has dictated that Mr Smith needs to take every opportunity to keep his combine hard at work.
In-field logistics sees up to five trailers brought in to haul grain from field to store with out-lying fields. And in the combine’s favour, the farm now has impressive drying and storage facilities.
A recent grain dryer installation means two Svegma continuous flow dryers offer a combined output of 80t per hour removing 5% moisture content, while the farm has capacity to store about 13,000 tonnes of crop - the lion’s share is stored at Manor Road Farm.
“Fortunately, I can dry grain quicker than the combine can harvest, which does give us some leeway when it comes to cutting earlier and staying out later,” he adds.
But the dependence on one combine for such a large area was thoroughly tested early this season when an unfortunate combine fire threw the farm’s plans into turmoil while harvesting oilseed rape.
“It was a very scary moment, and luckily no-one was hurt,” he says. “But such an incident does expose the weakness of a system like ours, which has total reliance on one piece of equipment.”
With help from Claas, the NFU and his local dealer, harvesting was able to continue almost uninterrupted using two smaller combines until a replacement 780TT was delivered to Manor Road Farm just 14 days later. Unfortunately, the replacement machine had to be supplied with a 12m header in the short-term.
“I could not fault the service and the co-operation of all involved,” he says. “But having two smaller combines on-hand to help continue with harvest has not made me reconsider having one large combine.”
Frustratingly, his CTF plans have gone partly on the back burner, as tractors and trailers have been unable to run on existing wheelings and tramlines to meet the proposed regime.
“Although we are temporarily back to a 12m system for the remainder of harvest, we are still pushing ahead with our plans for CTF based around 13.5m wheelings,” he says. “We will be using use the rest of the season to fine-tune our cultivations and drilling systems at the new, wider working width.
“When the wider header and extended auger return for 2015, my next step will be to consider how a chaser bin might boost our CTF system,” he says. “We have lorries on the farm that could run to field boundaries, and our dryer’s 50-tonne capacity intake pit was built to accommodate bulk trailers.”
Mr Smith accepts as the business evolves, the prospect of adding more land to the portfolio could force the farm to revisit logistics.
“I’m not enthusiastic about running two combines,” he says. “Logistically and financially, I believe we will always be better off with one large, high capacity machine.
“While you would have to be very unlucky to have both combines down at the same time, having that second harvester does increase your costs and places higher demands on labour resources too,” he says.
“I would much rather ask for help if needed, rather than add a second combine.
“And since we adopted a single combine policy eight years ago, that extra help has only been needed on three occasions.”