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Published March 18, 2013, 12:51 PM

Self-propelled beet harvesters showcased at Sugarbeet Institute

Will Red River Valley area sugar beet farmers change from the familiar pull-behind sugar beet harvesters to self-propelled machines? Four manufacturers are hoping so, as they talked up their wares at the 51st International Sugarbeet Institute, March 13 and 14 in Fargo.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Will Red River Valley area sugar beet farmers change from the familiar pull-behind sugar beet harvesters to self-propelled machines?

Four manufacturers are hoping so, as they talked up their wares at the 51st International Sugarbeet Institute, March 13 and 14 in Fargo. The self-propelled machines — long used in Europe — are being promoted in the Americas for their labor saving and efficiency, compared to pull-behind models popular in the U.S. A few of the self-propelled machines have been tried in the valley and two are already owned by farmers in south-central Minnesota.

The only actual machines at the show this year were of the Ropa brand, made in Germany. Canadian beet farmer John Noorloos, and his partner Eugen Burgin of Wyoming, Ontario, are president and secretary, respectively, for the distributor — Ropa North America Inc.

Noorloos says there were 48 of the Ropa harvesters in North America in 2012, mostly in the Michigan and Ontario area. This coming fall, he thinks about 30 to 35 percent of beets in Michigan may be handled by Ropa alone, and there a few self-propelled harvesters from other brands.

Noorloos and Bergin raise beets for Michigan Sugar Co., a cooperative based in Bay City, Mich. They bought a Ropa for their own operations in 2002. Each grows 600 acres of beets of their own and harvests another 300 in custom work. Since buying the Ropa, they became the North American distributor and a regional dealer for their home area. There also is a Nebraska dealer and Ropa will add one in the Red River Valley when numbers warrant it.

Ropa’s yellow contraption is 57 feet from nose to tail with a 16-foot-wide header — bigger than any other kind of harvester seen here.

A Ropa has a 600-horsepower Mercedes diesel engine. Through a gearbox, it has 10 hydraulic pumps, which control hydraulic motors on the machine. The single machine defoliates, digs and hauls beets to the edge of a field with a 25-ton on-board bunker.

“The real benefit is that one man operates basically what three tractors do,” Noorloos says. “Instead of three operators, you have one operator in the field. It offers efficiencies for man, fuel and tractor.”

When an investment is spread over 1,000 acres, it becomes cheaper than the conventional system, Noorloos contends. An eight-row, 22-inch-wide row model lists at about $710,000 and the nine-row 20-inch model runs about $715,000. The machines will likely be most popular in these narrower row spacings because of a perceived yield advantage, Noorloos says.

What about mud?

Noorloos says his company demonstrated the machines in August 2012 on farms in Minto, N.D., Breckenridge, Minn., and in southern Minnesota at Bird Island and Hector, where two of the machines were sold. None have been sold in the Red River Valley, but one farmer looking at the machines says they’ll likely be more attractive in areas farther from population centers, where qualified farm labor is more difficult to find. One exhibitor selling tile field drainage says they’d probably work best on drain fields.

Ropa is trying to show that the machines will do well in the heavy, Red River Valley clays.

“It was an extremely dry fall and we did not get to test it during the wet conditions until we got the 2 inches of rain up north,” Noorloos says, of last year’s demonstrations. “We brought it up there and ran it through the mud, and — yup — the mud will go through the rollers and cleaning mechanisms at the back, and we can deliver clean beets. With the three-axle drive, it’ll go through a pile of mud. I think the fact that you can dig the beets out of the ground before the tractor tires ever get there is a big advantage.”

Noorloos sells a separate cart that can follow the harvester for continuous harvesting when the machine is full at mid-field. “With the cart we don’t need a truck in the field,” Noorloos says.

The company also manufactures a third machine — a $600,000 self-propelled cleaning mechanism called a Maus. The Maus picks up beets that have been temporarily laid in windrows at the end of a field. The beets are kept there for two or three days and the dirt starts to dry and separate from them, so they are cleaned before trucking them to the company. The Maus name is a German acronym and play on words because it has a tail-like conveyor system, Noorloos says.

A changing market

Also at the show was Jake Maurer of Ruth, Mich., president of Holmer Americas Inc., a division of a German parent of the same name. Holman started making beet harvesters in the 1960s and is in its third year selling self-propelled models in North America. The company had a total of seven machines running in the U.S. and Canada in 2012 and expects to have a dozen in 2013, Maurer says.

“I think the longer these machines have been in the U.S., the more people are intrigued and interested,” Mauer says. “The market is changing a little. I think they see labor savings because you can cart, top and harvest with one machine. You have a good-sized hopper that can take 22 to 23 tons anyhow.” Holmer offers a range of header options but the most popular size is the eight-row models with 20-inch row spacing, running more than $625,000.

Mauer says off-loading and windrowing the beets on the field edge for later hauling effectively decouples the harvest and trucking operations. His company’s cleaner-loader sells for $550,000 to $575,000.

Another company at the show for the first time was Agrifac Exxact, a Netherlands manufacturer, owned by the Excel Group of France. Lars Stadman, sales manager for the company, says Agrifac and its predecessors have been around since just after WWII and have been producing self-propelled beet harvesting equipment for decades. It sold 12-row models from 2002 to 2006, but then sold fewer than 30 because the market was “not ready.” It is now, Stadman says.

The Agrifac machine’s 12-row model is listed at about $785,000. It puts 28 tons in a bin and promotes its high-cleaning capacity and 300 ton-per-hour throughput.

An official of Vervaet B.V., a Netherlands company, was at the show but not immediately available to talk to Agweek. Vervaet is partnering with Art’s Way, an Armstrong, Iowa-based company that was established in 1956. Art’s Way has made sugar beet harvesters and defoliators since the 1980s. In a recent Art’s Way advertisement, Vervaet says it is sold out for the 2013 season but is selling machines for the 2014 season.