As one of the UK’s first customers of Vicon’s radical non-stop round baler, the FastBale, we find out from contractor D. Clifford and Sons if it was a gamble worth taking.
Simon Henley reports...
Although extensively explored by several manufacturers and inventors, including Claas, Krone and Geoff Ayre, the practice of non-stop combination round baling was little more than wishful thinking until a few years ago.
But this all changed in 2015 when Vicon announced it had developed a new fixed chamber baler/wrapper called the FastBale, capable of continuous operation.
Nottinghamshire contractors D. Clifford and Sons has been contract round-baling since Derek Clifford bought his first MF round baler in 1980.
Established in 1974, the company has since used a number of different makes and models of baler, however it is the Vicon brand which they have repeatedly turned to since the late-1990s.
John Clifford says: “I think we have had Vicon balers since they were invented. We have worked closely with the company over the years and we have been fortunate enough to have helped with product development and testing as they have required it.
“We had a square baler for two seasons but we did not like it. Since then we have always stuck to round balers and we have been using combination balers since we bought our first Vicon BalePack in 2004.
"In recent years we have also owned a Lely Tornado, but we returned to Vicon with the launch of the FastBale.”
The Clifford family was introduced to the FastBale baler during its development.
The new baler underwent testing for several years prior to its launch, as Vicon engineers perfected what John Clifford would soon discover was a very impressive machine.
“I asked Vicon if they would come out and bale 150 acres of Lucerne for me,” says Mr Clifford.
“It was autumn and we were behind, so they brought the prototype FastBale to the farm. I was literally gob-smacked by its performance. It handled the wet crop with effortless ease and the bales were all perfectly formed with nice straight corners.”
At the time, John and his son Sam were looking for a new baler. A visit to Lamma would provide inspiration, but the kind of performance the baler had demonstrated in the Lucerne crop was exactly what they were looking for.
“We bought Vicon’s demonstration FastBale baler last year. It was quite a big decision to make, primarily because we had never previously owned a fixed-chamber baler, and secondly because it cost about 40 per cent more than the Lely Tornado.
“We were aware the FastBale is a fundamentally a silage baler. We bale on the top-side of 10,000 silage bales each season. The logic behind buying the FastBale was to enable us to gather the crop more efficiently by reducing the amount of baling time required.
"This has not only allowed us to reduce the amount of night work during the harvest season, but it has also provided the capacity to cover a larger acreage should the weather become a threat.”
By keeping meticulous records, Mr Clifford has continually monitored the performance of his FastBale. The results make for some impressive reading.
Periodic spot-rate checks in the field have revealed the baler can produce up to 120 bales per hour in a consistent crop following a nine metre rake. That is one bale every 30 seconds.
“I generally calculate the amount I can bale in a day by timing the job from the moment I leave the yard, to when I return. This provides a realistic performance base-line in which I can factor in variables such as labour costs, travel time and fuel.
“Using this method of calculating, the Lely Tornado would typically average 45 bales per hour. The Vicon FastBale averages 55 bales per hour, which in a peak-season working day equates to an additional average of 100 bales per day.
“This now means we can literally bale grass as fast as it comes out of the mower. It will handle any type of wet crop and we generally mow and then pick-up 24-36 hours later.
“One of the rules we have about baling is we always rake the crop. Swath consistency is imperative for optimum baler performance and bale formation.
"We use a nine-metre rake set-up to make a five-foot wide swath and we do it using the tractor’s GPS-guided automatic steering. This provides consistent crop intake into the pre-chamber, eliminating the need for weaving across the windrow.”
Mr Clifford says the FastBale is easy to operate.
“You can literally pull into a field, press the button which lowers the wrapper, drop the pick-up reel and go. The baler does the rest for you.”
Equipped with Vicon’s Tellus touch-screen terminal, the screen provides a split image including a real-time graphic display of the crop as it passes through the baler, identifying bale formation, netting and film-wrapping.
“A camera view of what is happening at the rear of the baler is displayed on the lower half of the screen,” adds Mr Clifford.
“Everything is controllable from the seat. I can activate the knives, adjust the bale density, vary the amount of netting or film-wrap being applied to the bales, and there are alarms to warn me if something goes wrong.
The minimum power requirement for the Vicon FastBale is 170hp. Mr Clifford uses a Massey Ferguson 7718 on the baler, which he claims is perfectly suited to the baler’s size and weight. A box on the tractor’s front linkage carries spare netting and film-wrap.
“Daily maintenance takes about 30 minutes. During that time I will fill the auto-oil and auto-grease lubricators, I will clean the pre-stretch rollers and pump a spot of grease into the grease nipples which require it.
“The net-wrap system uses a single roll, with storage space for a second. The bale-wrapper uses two film rolls at a time and can carry an additional 10 rolls of film. The baler is very tall, and initially I was a little daunted by the prospect of loading new rolls of netting or film-wrap. However, once you have done it a couple of times it is easy.
“Loading the film wrap requires little more than pressing a button on the side of the baler, prompting the wrapping mechanism to allow a new role to be fitted. The net is changed by opening the side of the baler and, using the levers provided, it lifts the roles of netting hydraulically.
“If I was being critical I would say the auto-lubrication reservoirs, which are positioned at the front of the baler, are too high from the ground to reach comfortably and they are awkward to fill. But this is really my only gripe.”
Vicon claims the FastBale can be used in straw, however it recommends switching to conventional mode which only uses the main bale-chamber, and then stopping to wrap.
“We have tried it in straw and hay. The ex-demo model we bought does not like crops with a dry matter, and any performance advantage was lost. Vicon have since modified the main-chamber which improved its performance in this type of crop, but we knew this when we bought it. We run two Vicon variable chamber machines for our hay and straw customers.
“In wet crops the Vicon FastBale is untouchable,” says Mr Clifford.
“It has proved to be reliable, it makes well-packed bales and the service support we have had from Vicon has been second to none.
“The gamble we made buying this machine has undoubtedly paid-off and we have just ordered a brand new model to replace this one. I firmly believe non-stop combination baling is the way forward.”
Established by Derek Clifford in 1974, this family owned business has established itself as one of the East Midlands’ most progressive agricultural contracting firms, offering a wide range of grassland oriented harvesting and land management services.
The company, which today spreads more than 15,000 tonnes of lime and harvests 10,000 silage/7,000 straw bales, is managed by John Clifford, his brother Chris and son Sam.
In addition to agricultural contracting, the company also serves as agricultural engineers and it is the official importer for Canadian-built Anderson bale handling equipment.
Pick-Up width: 2.2 metres
Feed rotor: 800mm
Chopping knives: 25, with the option to select 25, 13, 12, 6 or zero
Bale size: 1.26m by 1.27m
Weight: 7.5 tonnes un-laden
Power required: 170hp
Hydraulic requirment: One double-acting spool and one power-beyond (70 litres per minute)