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User story: Dairy farmer lowers risk of soil contamination in forage

By switching from a traditional rake to using a swath merger, one Leicestershire dairy farmer has lowered the risk of soil contamination in forage and reduced the amount of stones from going through the forager.


Geoff Ashcroft reports.

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To avoid crop contamination, Leicestershire farmer, Neville Kirkham has made the switch to a belt merger for rowing up duties.

Machine data

  • Make: ROC
  • Model: RT870, hydraulic folding
  • Pickup width: 7.6m
  • Working width: 8.7m (side discharge)
  • Weight: 4.2 tonnes
  • Power requirement: from 80hp and three spools

While traditional rotary rakes continue to rule the roost when it comes to feeding balers and forage harvesters, there is now a growing number of people making the switch to belt mergers to create swaths.


Where rakes can be accused of dragging forage across the surface of a field as part of the rowing up process, a swath merger lifts and amalgamates mown crops into a large row.


And an increasing number of dairy farmers are now seeing the benefits to such kit, in pursuit of better forage quality with a reduction in soil contamination.


Neville Kirkham of Rushey Fields Farm, Woodhouse, Leicestershire, has used an Italian-made ROC swath merger for the last three seasons, and believes the well-being of his cows and his forage harvester, has improved as a result.


“We grow lucerne in addition to grass for our silage needs, and a swath merger offers better leaf preservation with lucerne,” he explains. “It is gentler on the crop, it doesn’t wipe the crop across the surface of the field, or scratch tines into the ground, and this means less soil contamination. Ultimately, this contributes to improving our forage quality.”


His experiences have proved that a swath merger does not collect stones, and as a result, his forager blades are staying sharper, for longer.

Neville Kirkham is pleased with the RT870’s ability to lift and merge swaths, without contamination.

“With the best will in the world, we’ve always done our best to set the rake as high as possible, without leaving any crop behind,” he says. “But one year, we wore half way through a set of forager blades by the end of first cut, simply because of small stones in the crop.”


“We’ve tried all sorts of techniques to deal with stones, including rolling and getting a billiard table smooth finish when reseeding leys. But this is just how our land is, and a rake doesn’t always give us the best results. Though it has been a necessity to make the most of forager performance.”


The farm cuts about 405 hectares (1,000 acres) of grass and lucerne each season, and boosts it with forage maize to ensile enough grub to feed its 800-plus head of cattle, comprising 300 dairy cows, followers and fattening cattle. Rushey Fields Farm also grows about 140 hectares (350 acres) of cereals, making the most of grain and straw production for his livestock unit. “We put a lot of effort into milk production,” he says. “And it starts each season with four cuts with two-year grass leys, three cuts with lucerne and a cut of permanent pasture. We have to get it right.”

Pickup tines lift crop onto the merger’s belts, which can be used for left- right- or central swath delivery.

The farm has moved in and out of raking its crops to suit its advancing levels of mechanisation. In the mid-1990’s, a JD1360 mower conditioner with swath grouper allowed the farm to double-up its swaths with third and fourth cuts, to keep trailed foragers well-fed. But when Mr Kirkham switched to the farm’s one and only self-propelled forager back in 1999, to replace a pair of trailed Taarup 602 choppers, a rake suddenly became a necessity. “We could group swaths in first and second cuts, but we couldn’t make a big enough row in later cuts to keep the JD6650 chopping efficiently,” he says. “So we bought a twin rotor rake to put three into one, and that’s when the trouble started.”


He points out that a rake relies on having a totally smooth field, so its wheels do not drop into ruts or tramlines that could affect tine height and raking performance. “Any surface undulations or small ruts caused by trailers for example, will affect how a rake travels across a field, and it doesn’t matter how good you are, you’ll always encounter some soil contamination when working on tightly mown stubbles if you want to get all your crop rowed up.”


He recalls seeing a swath merger at the French Sima show in 2005, and was convinced of its capability. “The stumbling block was the price,” he says. “A merger is around three times the cost of a rake – but it does offer so much more versatility. We have also used ours for turning straw after a shower of rain.”

For transport, the RT870’s outer belts and pickup units are folded hydraulically.

Mr Kirkham’s machine of choice was an ROC RT870 from Derbyshire-based Shutts Farm Machinery, acquired as a secondhand purchase. It offers an 8.7m working width, similar in width to the farm’s Krone twin rotor rake previously used, and can be pulled with as little as 80hp.


The trailed RT870 uses three pickups and three conveyor belts. It lifts the crop off the ground in the same way that most machines’ pickup reels do, and then uses its conveyors to deposit the forage either fully to the left, or fully to the right. This can be done using the in-cab control box.


It is a process which allows this 8.7m merger to collect up to seven, 3m swaths. By lifting and collecting three rows, then placing them on top of the next adjacent (fourth) row, the machine can then travel back down the field picking up another three swaths and placing them on the previously collected swath. And this suits late season light crops, where a four- or six-rotor rake might be employed.


Its versatility also allows the central conveyor to be removed – a process twhich takes around an hour to complete – and the outer belts can then deliver the crop into the middle of the machine. “This is how we choose to run our merger with early, heavy crops,” he says. “The central pickup section lifts the middle row off the deck, and then all three are placed back on the ground, creating one large boxy swath.”

A small, two-wheel drive tractor is more than enough to power the merger, says Mr Kirkham.

“We’ve found the merger doesn’t rope the crop – it leaves it fluffy and open, which helps drying, and this smooth swath is kind on the forager with crop flow. We don’t get any lumps at all.”


“For third and fourth cuts, we’ll put the central belt back in and merge a greater number of swaths together.”


Mr Kirkham says that a small, two-wheel drive tractor is more than enough to power the merger, and its forward speed is twice that of a conventional rake, boosting output ahead of the forager. “We currently mow using a front/rear combination to drop 6m of grass, and we still use our old 1360 with grouper too,” he says. “This gives us plenty of mowing capacity, and we leave the crop in swaths behind the mower. After a suitable wilting period, we merge the swaths without tedding and pick up the crop with our 18-year old JD6650 forager.”


The farm also has five clamps, allowing it to segregate forage type and cuts, to assist with feed ration consistency. “By making all our own silage, we can control the flow of grass and lucerne to the clamp, and manage the chop length to suit our feed system,” he says. “And because I spend my time on the clamp, I can see what’s coming in, and I can build the clamp at a comfortable pace.”


“And this is equally important to ensure I have time to properly roll and consolidate the clamp.”

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