For many years, plot harvest for the Michigan Sugar Company Research Department entailed working with a pair of two-row Farmhand harvesters whose origin dated back to the mid-1950s. The machines went through numerous updates from 2000 onward, including the installation of grab-roll cleaning beds, hydraulically driven components and digital scales. Overall, the harvesters worked quite well; but they were slow and really stretched the harvest season to its absolute maximum. Plus, their limitations restricted the number and geographic scope of research trials that could be feasibly conducted.
To alleviate this problem, we first considered modifying current commercial harvesting machines, similar to what was done years ago with the two-row machines. But it soon became apparent that no existing harvesters adequately met our needs. One of the biggest obstacles was in keeping each row separate throughout the harvest-ing and weighing process. We needed that capability to account for rows that may be deemed unusable for data due to thin stands, disease or other issues. The weights from such rows cannot be used in data calculation; but harvesters using ferris wheels or scrubber chains would not allow this separation. Another obstacle was in having to empty the bulk hopper at each end of the pass. We are unable to drive trucks in the field because of the way we harvest. So, looking for options, our research team met with fabricators in the Michigan Sugar Company growing area to see what could be developed. The construction of our resulting new six-row research harvester came about through collaboration with Ike’s Weld-ing & Manufacturing in Munger, Richmond Brothers Fabrication at Bay Port and Cech Corporation of Saginaw. Ike’s designed and fabricated the frame, hydraulic circuit and weigh hoppers; Richmond Brothers supplied the common harvester parts (e.g., lifter wheels, struts); and Cech created the weighing program and supplied the electronics to record weights. The harvester — which has been a great asset for our research team during the 2014 and 2015 harvests — lifts beets much like any existing commercial harvester; but that is where the similarities cease. Once clear of the lifting wheels, the beets travel up an incline scrubber chain where they fall onto grabrolls for additional cleaning. These grabrolls then dump into six separate baskets (one for each row), each with a hydraulic trap door on the bottom. The baskets are suspended on load cells that communicate through a wireless Bluetooth connection with an Android tablet that records and documents the weights as the plots are harvested. Once the weight and tare samples are collected, the baskets’ trap doors are opened, and the beets fall onto a cross conveyor chain to be windrowed. The tare samples are stored on a platform behind the work area. The platform has a hydraulic scissor lift to facilitate unloading of the approximately 9,000 samples we bag each year. This six-row harvester is supported by a set of Camoplast tracks, chosen for their load-bearing capability as well as their weight distribution. The MSC research plot harvester’s hydraulic system is completely adjustable for speed with the simple touch of a button. With this, the speed of the grabrolls, paddleshaft and two scrubber chains can be changed independently to compensate for harvest speeds and soil conditions. Also, the weighing program allows templates to be up-loaded from Microsoft Excel for each individual plot, thereby reducing the amount of paperwork on the front end while, on the back end, reducing the time required to com-pile the data.
One of the most interesting aspects of this machine is how efficient it has made our harvest. Harvest with the two two-row machines took us anywhere from 38 to 42 days. In 2014, we ran one two-row machine and the new six-row machine and were able to complete harvest in 30 days with the same amount of labor. We used only the six-row machine during the 2015 harvest and were able to fin-ish in 25 days with six fewer employees. As we become increasingly familiar with the six-row harvester, we are working out all of the bugs and becoming more and more efficient. For example, it used to take six hours to harvest an official variety trial with a two-row harvester; with the six-row unit, we can do so in less than two hours. In addition to improved efficiency, we believe this machine has helped us increase our overall harvest quality and accuracy. The old two-row harvesters could be tweaked and modified in many ways; but at the end of the day, we were still using technology out of the 1950s. This new six-row machine uses current harvesting technology, along with the adaptations for its use as a dedicated research plot harvester. Any time a machine is purpose-built from the ground up, it is just going to work better.